Food

America's Priciest Steak Houses Still Serving Factory-Farmed Beef

Most of the high priced U.S. haunts of meat connoisseurs cite several excuses for not making the shift to ethically raised, drug-free, grass-fed cattle.


Free range and grass fed at Morton's, Ruth's Chris and BLT Steak House? Sadly, that's a tall order, one that appears too rare for the tastes of these popular dining destinations.

You have to wonder why when considering the health of loyal customers lapping up 10 ounces of beef in one sitting, washing down the seared flesh of a hormone-induced, antibiotic-injected feed lot animal with a glass of bold Cabernet.

Most of the high-priced U.S. haunts of meat connoisseurs cite several excuses for not making the shift to ethically raised, drug-free, grass-fed cattle, which scientists tell us are much healthier animals at market, and healthier food on our plates and in our bodies.

For Morton's, the rationale in selling Midwest grain-fed prime is widespread availability and consistency of flavor. It's the wonderful flavor, it says, which has famous athletes and businesspeople seeking out the ritzy restaurants in the towns they visit.

"We have to have a consistent product because we ship all over the world to 76 owned and operated steak houses," explains Roger Drake, Chief Communications Officer. "Beef is 80 percent of what we sell and we have to have the availability. With organic I know you don't always have that availability. "

Drake describes the meat as aged prime, the top 2 percent of all beef available in the U.S., and says it is purchased from two purveyors in Chicago whom the company has partnered with for more than 30 years.

"Its the best of the best as far as beef goes," he says. "In order to supply all the Mortons, including Singapore and Hong Kong, we need a large supply."

He says they have tried different types of beef, such as grass-fed, but the public company, led by co-founder Klaus Fritsch, prefers the good old grain-fed. And how do they know the beef they buy is from cattle raised ethically?

"We go by USDA requirements, rules and regulations," he explains. "Our two purveyors in Chicago have stringent rules."

Still, those trusty, longtime partnerships can be broken if discerning customers start making a fuss, according to Dr. Michael Greger, Director of Public Health and Agriculture of the Humane Society International.

A leading world authority on the link between inhumane conditions for farm animals and human health, Greger argues most consumers don't know what they are eating. He points out that the reason cattle are fed grain is to marbleize the flesh with saturated fat, which is the number one contributor to the top killer in the United States: heart disease.

"For people who have grown up eating that fatty beef, switching to grass fed is like going from whole milk to two percent and it doesn't have the same feel," observes Greger, a specialist in Zoonotic diseases. He adds that three-quarters of all emerging diseases come from the animal kingdom, including Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Monkey Pox, SARS and West Nile.

Greger says education is key to help consumers understand that their health is more important than the taste they are used to – and that grass fed can be just as appealing.

He cites additional risks involved with eating grain-fed factory beef, even those aged prime fillets that run $60 to $100 a slab, that go beyond heart disease. The cows spend the first six to 12 months of their lives in a calm existence doing what comes naturally, grazing in the field. But once they are carted off to the feedlots in crowded, hot conditions and castrated, branded and de-horned without anesthesia, the real risk begins: The mass feeding of an unnatural daily diet and preventative drugs.

"When you feed them a high concentration of starches and cereal grains, they get an acid build-up and it disrupts the function of the rumen, the first stomach, and this leads to a long list of disorders like liver abscesses, hoof ailments and acidosis," explains Greger. "The reduction of the pH of the rumen because of fermentation acids from the grains causes cows to become clinically ill, suffer intestinal damage, dehydration, loss of appetite and even death. The foot ailments also result, causing lameness or for animals to be either euthanized or dragged to slaughter."

This is where the drugs come in, and do they come. Greger says 70 percent of all antibiotics given in the U.S. go to farm animals to prevent disease or promote growth in a stressful environment. The mass feeding to cattle may allow them to grow two percent quicker, but it also fosters the development of resistance to many of the same pathogens that cause inborn illness in people.

As Greger sees it: "The problem is these are human antibiotics, and this is why humans are running out of good resistant antibiotics. When you start treating cattle with antibiotics, human health problems come in, particularly because of liver abscesses. Five human antibiotics are widely administered as a prophylactic specifically to prevent the abscesses they know will develop from feeding them grain."

So what about the argument that organic grass fed meat is too hard to get? The Humane Society boasts huge strides in the cage free industry working with producers and suppliers, even getting the Compass Group – the world's largest food service provider – to pass and implement a monumental cage-free shell egg policy in 2007, effecting nearly 50 million eggs annually.

This move clearly improved the welfare and conditions of farm animals while protecting human health from disease caused by inhumane conditions wherein chickens spend their entire lives not being able to sit up and turn around in their metal stalls.

"If there is a demand, supply will be set up," says Greger, reminding us how Chipotle fast food chains have had great success accessing Niman Ranch pork and meat for its dishes. The chain has been getting some criticism lately for its tomatoes from Florida where slave labor may farm them, but it still serves as a nationwide example that grassfed suppliers want to make money just like everyone else.

"If someone from one of these restaurants contacted the coops of producers and said they wanted to buy the grassfed organic beef, they could do it," insists Greger. "It's a business and producers will meet any demand out there."

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