Rethinking Meat

Mon, March 31, 2014

The bad news about meat just keeps coming.

First, we worried that eating too much of it—especially red meat—was bad for our health. Next, we worried about livestock production’s impact on the environment. One cow’s annual output of methane—about 100 kilograms—is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline. A recent New York Times article stated that a farm with 10,000 hogs produces as much fecal waste as a small city with 40,000 people.

Now a new book, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of American Business, is raising awareness about meat production’s impact on rural life. The consolidation of the U.S. meat industry, author Christopher Leonard writes, has turned the nation’s constellation of once-independent farmers into de facto indentured servants.

With evidence mounting, you’d think diners would be ordering a lot less meat. Americans are eating a bit less; between 2011 and 2014, U.S. beef consumption is expected to decline by more than 12 percent. But on the whole diners still want meat at the center of their plates. What are chefs and other foodservice professionals to do? 

This was the challenge that the Mushroom Council set out to unravel in 2011. (The Mushroom Council is a founding corporate member of The Culinary Institute of America’s Healthy Menus R&D Collaborative, a multiyear initiative dedicated to finding targeted practical solutions to expand healthy menu choices.)

Their idea: a beef-mushroom blend for burgers, meatballs, taco meat and other foods that tastes as good as 100 percent beef. The only way this was going to work, says Bart Minor, the Mushroom Council’s president and chief executive, was if there was no sacrifice.

So far so good. The Mushroom Council sponsored a study conducted by the CIA and the University of California, Davis of a taco blend that showed that tasters generally preferred the meat-mushroom blend better than a 100-percent beef, citing intensified aromas, flavors, and texture and moisture levels. This finding was especially true among educated, upper-income women and Millennials. Mushrooms also can help chefs to reduce sodium: The taco blend with the greatest amount of mushrooms, an 80:20 blend, was the only reduced-sodium sample that scored as well as the standard full sodium version. (The research has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal; publication is pending.)

Foodservice chefs appear to be embracing the idea. “Using mushrooms in our burger is not only healthier but it adds flavor,” says Eric Ernest, the executive chef at the University of Southern California.

Of course, finding these kind of win-win solutions is never easy. And so, in addition to outlining health and scientific recommendations based on the latest science, this year’s Menus of Change report will suggest practical, incremental steps that chefs and foodservice professionals can take to make food healthy and sustainable, as well as delicious.

To review the 2013 Menus of Change Annual Report, click here.