What’s the beef with beef these days?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Sliced Steak

When steak is on the menu, you may not be thinking about the impact your dinner has on the environment. But with reputable food companies and restaurants now going vegan, should you? Emily addresses whether or not “canceling meat” is the answer to this trending conversation.

 

What’s the beef with beef these days?

Some people are cutting beef out of their diets, while others are committed more than ever to their burgers and steaks. It’s not a new dichotomy, but it’s certainly more palpable this year.

Recent Announcements

In Spring 2021, the media publicized (heavily) two announcements, which really brought this conversation mainstream.

The chef of a well-known New York restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, announced that when they re-open this summer, the menu would be completely free of any animal products. AKA vegan.

Around the same time, a food and recipe site, Epicurious, announced that it would no longer post new recipes with beef in them. 

These declarations, combined with the growing scrutiny over companies’ Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), bumped beef to the top of the water cooler discussions (p.s. do those still exist?).

So what do we, as general consumers, need to know so that we can feel comfortable and confident in our choices?

Let’s Break It Down

Ruminant animals (usually grouped as “red meat”) contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Cows, or beef, are the largest contributor out of all these ruminants. Why is this?

  • Epicurious estimates on their site that cows produce 20% more emissions than plant foods such as beans.
  • They use lots of land. The more land used for cows, the more we have to clear the land of trees. And as we know, trees take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, hence more net positive emissions.
  • Cows need food. It takes water and land to grow food and water to hydrate the cows. More emissions.
  • More directly, emissions are produced by all things running the farm like fertilizer, and machinery to care for the crops, as well as those bovine bodily functions (eww but yes).

Does this mean we should reduce our carbon footprint by cutting out beef completely? For many, the answer remains unclear.

All animals are not created equal

Per Epicurious, cows are three times less efficient to raise, sustainably speaking, than poultry. So, if you switch from eating beef to chicken, is that impactful enough? What if you eat beef once a week and your friend eats chicken 3x/week? Which choice contributes to more emissions?

What if you get your beef from a local farmer? Local butcher? What if you cook it over a fire instead of a stove? These things should make a difference, right?

It does in some ways. And the the point is that the math starts to get complicated. It’s not as clear-cut of an argument as it is sometimes presented.

Placing morality on food is tricky

But it’s more than just the math.

People are uncomfortable with paternalistic messages. For the most part, we don’t want unsolicited advice on what to eat. Soda Taxes anyone?

When an establishment or a celebrity announces they are avoiding one food or another, this can directly or indirectly, feel judgmental to the average consumer. It can feel as if someone is questioning our character.

It begs the question, if we eat all vegan and raw, or this way, or that way, does that make us a better person than someone who doesn’t? Sounds cheeky, but it illustrates why these announcements have produced such intense reactions in people.

Food bullying

It’s not OK to bully someone else for not choosing sides; or to bully someone else for making a food choice different than our own.

If we try to help a family member make more informed food choices, there are ways to share information and communicate. It’s my opinion that we can consider food preference and taste while also being thoughtful of how our actions impact the environment.

Where will I personally go with this?

The announcements from Epicurious and Eleven Madison Park reinforce the messages about food that we typically promote at Fountain Avenue Kitchen – that eating a variety of foods, rather than the same thing all of the time (in this case, namely meat) can be beneficial for physical health and will have less of an environmental impact than if we ate beef at every meal.

I celebrate those who are committed to something they feel passionate about, for thinking globally and caring about others. But, having confidence in our choices and preaching about them to others is different.

Why is a clinically-trained dietitian weighing in on this?

To be clear…

Neither Eleven Madison Park or Epicurious made claims that avoiding beef will prevent chronic disease, or make us physically healthier. Per the announcements, these decisions were made with sustainability concerns in mind.

I am a clinical dietitian, and certainly not an expert in sustainability. But readers have been asking my opinion on the matter, so I dug a little deeper into the issue.

And though I did focus specifically on sustainability here, I want to acknowledge that physical health, morality, business strategy, job opportunity, food access, and cultural preference are some other very important factors that people consider when making food choices.

Key Takeaways

This issue is not so clear-cut, not so obvious, and not so easy. As things evolve we may choose to make dietary changes, or we may not. That’s OK.

As for the announcement from Eleven Madison Park, it’s one meal at one special occasion restaurant. And given its accolades over the years, I’m sure the meal will be delicious regardless. At the time this is being published, there is a reservation waitlist of over 15,000. Their decision to go vegan has certainly not hurt business…

And as for Epicurious, they have over a thousand beef recipes on their site to choose from. We will all find something we love with no judgment attached.

There’s too much good food out there to rely on one restaurant, one recipe, or one food item to make or break our days. Let’s try new things and embrace variety.

It’s valuable to consider how our diets may impact our environment. If we are interested in making changes, we can still make a difference without having to commit to an “all or nothing approach.”

Ultimately, for the most part, it’s our choice what we eat.

For more information on the topic

*Read the Epicurious Announcement and Eleven Madison Park Announcement in full

*Check out this NPR podcast in which three people from different angles discuss how these announcements could impact us. Ann and I both found it valuable and thought-provoking, but full disclosure in my opinion all three sides seem to morph into one moderate position by the end.

* Peruse the Economic Research from the USDA 

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Comments

  1. Sarah

    We hear so many messages on this topic these days, so it can be hard to know what’s “right.” I appreciate the balanced approach you provided as well as the links to additional reading from several vantage points.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Sarah, I agree that it’s hard to know what the ‘right’ thing is, and I struggle with it as well. I’m glad you appreciated this balanced approach. Feel free to report back if there are any interesting articles you want to share with all of our readers!

      Reply