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When the first Europeans set foot in the Americas natives were still hunting buffalo. There were no cattle, but millions of hectares of lush pastureland, perfect for raising healthy animals and for producing a lot of milk.
The first cattle brought by Spaniards in 1534 were Longhorns, followed later on by the British with Herefords, Aberdeen Angus and Shorthorns. All have been able to acclimatize to the harsh winters in both Canada and the U S A.
Since then many other breeds were imported – Ayrshire, Charolais, Chianina, Galloway, Guernsey, Jersey, Limousin, Simmenthal and crossbreeds. Some were brought as dairy cattle, others for meat.
Americans, Canadians, Australians, Argentines, the British and Colombians consume considerable amounts of beef whereas continental Europeans favour veal and other sources of protein. In Europe, beef is consumed in relatively small quantities. Cattle requires pastureland, and European countries being more densely populated than those mentioned above prefer by necessity to husband cows for milk and cheese. Continental European beef is more expensive and generally tougher than North American beef.
In Canada, the U S A, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand cattle raising is now a multibillion dollar industry fine-tuned right down to manufactured feed to achieve optimal results. Along with this sophistication, greed contributed to the fatal BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalophaty).
Much of the beef consumed today is raised on grass and fattened on feed lots by feed consisting of corn, and molasses; chemicals are sued to tranquillise cattle or prevent diseases.
In Britain the feed industry used ground slaughtered by-products, animal fat and offal (a k a variety cuts) which were blended with grain-based mixtures. Cattle farmers eagerly bought this so called “balanced: feed”, only to discover much later that some of their animals became sick, behaving abnormally and losing their balance. Humans, who consumed the meat of both symptomatic and symptom-free cattle, got infected ad came down with the Creutzfeld-Jacob fatal disease.
This is when catastrophe struck the British cattle industry. Authorities moved in killing thousands of cattle, sheep and other suspect animals. The losses amounted to billions of dollars and prompted thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to swear of beef.
Authorities both in the USA and Canada prohibited the importation of British cattle, and use of feed containing rendered animal by-products.
Beef is hearty, deeply flavoured and more satisfying than veal or pork. Britons, American, Australians and Argentines, Japanese and wealthy continental Europeans consumed beef, especailly tender cuts like ribs, triploins and tenderloins. Whole roasted strip loin or tenderloin with Sauce Hollandaise, Choron, Mousseline, Bearnaise or Bordelaise are served for ceremonial dinners. Already Romans knew that beef from steer tasted better and accordingly castrated heifers to obtain firmer and more flavourful meat. Steer beef is lighter in colour, firmer without being chewy, and contains better marbling.
Cow meat on the other hand is dark in colour, chewy and tough. Most of the cow meat is used for sausages and as ground meat.
In New World countries pasture and generally agricultural land is vast and relatively inexpensive making corn feeding feasible. However, these cattle require four kilograms (9 lbs) of corn to gain 500 grams (one lb.) of meat; an expensive way to convert grain to meat. Regardless beef in New World countries is affordable for millions. However, inexpensive food encourages over consumption of not only meat, but also cholesterol-rich fat that lead to cardiovascular diseases and overweight.
Japanese Kobe and Matsuzake beef are famous for their tenderness, riche taste and flavour, but can only be enjoyed by the wealthy. The popularity of Kobe-style beef (produced from Wagyu cattle) led some cattle ranchers to raise their animals according to the Kobe protocol. (See article on Kobe beef).
Recent unfavourable developments of BSE encourages many consumers to turn to organic beef (Black Angus, Hereford, Black Baldy) that are fed with high-quality grass (grass about to go to seed) and clover, prior to being pampered with organically grown corn. Chemicals, vaccines and artificial substances are not used. While this beef costs more, it is more satisfying and possesses eating characteristics that fattened cattle cannot offer. French consider their Charolais and Limousin to be superior in taste to Black Angus and not surprisingly, Italians claim the same for their Chianina developed in the Chiana Valley in Tuscany.
In Spain, the owner of Vega Sicila winery, the most prestigious red wine of the country, stated raising cattle oin highlands of Castille-Leom. Here the mountain Brown cattle imported from Switzerland are raised on high-quality pastureland, without antibiotics, vaccines or tranquillisers. The cattle are never stressed and slaughtered when 800 kg. (1760 lbs)
Grass-fed beef tastes drier and is texturally chewier than grain finished; but contains fat rich on omega6 fats considered beneficial to health.
Canadian beef, even grain finished, happens to be chewier than American beef, which tends to the darker, sweeter (because of the molasses) softer, and juicier (wet). Some favour USDA prime grade beef, others prefer organic. Yet others buy Kobe-style raised beef produced in some selected ranches in Colorado, California, and Iowa.
Aging beef contributes to tenderness and flavour. Most tender- and strip loins are wet aged in cryovac plastic bags under refrigeration. Dry aging in a well-ventilated, cold room (4 C) = 40 F) yields more desirable flavours and tenderness.
The tenderest cut is the tenderloin, but most flavourful are strip loin and rib. Tenderloins freeze well, whereas strip loins and ribs do not, due to their muscle structure.
Quality of meat has always been an important issuer for high-end restaurant and steakhouses. These types of restaurants are very expensive and cater to a highly discriminating clientele; hence, quality has been elevated to an even higher level. Some enterprising individuals started businesses offering third party quality certification that grades the beef based on a strict protocol of length of aging, conditions of aging, temperature, breed and grade. This beef costs more but offers guarantees general meat packers cannot match.
Buying beef requires a lot of attention and background checks of suppliers. Chefs who pay attention to such criteria can rest assured to be more successful than those who use regular beef.
* BSE was first tracked in 1984, at a farm in South Downs, England. It was causing one of the cows to lose weight and act nervous, as if drunken on its hooves.
* Since the, 200,000 British and European cattle have died over BSE.
* In Canada more than 2,000 cattle have been killed and tested since a single case was found. None of the carcasses that have been slaughtered contained BSE. (May 2003)
There is no treatment for the disease.
* Before U K officials knew what they were dealing with, BSE tainted cattle feed was shipped around the world.
* In Britain, 122 people died from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, which is the human form of BSE. There deaths were linked to eating processed products containing meat from BSE infected animals.
* Cattle feed made with protein or bone meal from grazing animals is banned in Canada.
* Variations of BSE can be found in sheep, deer and people.
* BSE has not been found in beef muscle. So experts say beef steaks and roasts are safe, along with hamburger ground from labeled cuts, such as chuck or round.
* Processed beef products, including hot dogs and luncheon meats, are made with mixed sources of meat obtained by automated equipment. These machines strip flesh from backbones and other awkwardly shaped parts of the cow. Some tests have detected evidence of central nervous system tissue in samples of processed beef products.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu
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