On a scorched afternoon a few days ago, two men sat in the deliciously cool black-lacquer- and-leopard-print dining room of the Prime Rib, Baltimore's high temple of carnivorous cuisine.
The table between them was empty except for an open bottle of San Pellegrino water, an untouched ramekin of raw horseradish and dinner plates holding six New York strip steaks.
One of the men, David Derewicz, the restaurant's affable and well-fed-looking general manager, sliced directly into the center of each perfectly cooked slab.
Deftly stabbing only the choicest bits with his serrated knife, he offered them to his dining companion, Theo Weening, a ponytailed Dutchman who is meat coordinator for Whole Foods' mid-Atlantic region.
This informal taste test was designed to see how different aging processes affect the flavor and texture of beef.
Here were meat-and-potatoes guys who had dispensed with the potatoes. The men chewed away in a deep, nearly prayerful silence.
"You want a salad or anything?" Derewicz finally asked.
"No, thanks. I'm in heaven here!" Weening said, with a broad smile.
An all-red-meat meal might be a heavenly fantasy to some Americans, especially those who are following the Atkins diet with its protein-rich menus. However, a small but steadily growing number of people are concerned about the safety of the meat they are eating.
When the topic came up between Derewicz and Weening, it was clear that these two meat lovers have different opinions.
Weening falls squarely into the concerned camp. Under his watch, the butcher shops in Baltimore's two Whole Foods stores sell only natural meat, or beef raised and slaughtered with techniques pioneered by Mel Coleman, a fourth-generation cattle rancher in southern Colorado.
This means cattle raised without hormones or antibiotics. They've not been fed animal byproducts (thought to be a possible source of mad cow disease), are treated in a humane way and are monitored from conception to consumption through bar codes tagged to every heifer's ear.
Back in 1979, Coleman urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a "natural" designation for beef, and his was the first cattle company to be so certified. Today, Coleman is the leading U.S. supplier of branded natural beef, which is also sold at natural-food supermarkets throughout the country, including Alfalfa's and Bread & Circus, in addition to Whole Foods.
Representing only 3 percent of all beef sold in the United States, natural meat has a way to go in penetrating the national consciousness. As with organic produce, one of the biggest barriers to an increased popularity of natural meat is price. A Coleman strip steak at Whole Foods, for example, is $13.99 a pound as opposed to $6.99 for a regular strip steak at Safeway. "When you don't feed an animal growth hormones, you have to feed it longer," Weening said, "so it costs more."
Although Weening insists the natural beef is much tastier than conventionally raised meat, the central tenet of his sales pitch is that it is much better for you. A tireless evangelist on the subject, he's gone so far as to arrange for Whole Foods to sell "natural" dog bones, which are the antibiotic-free rib and hip bones recycled from Coleman cattle. "They're flying out of our stores," he said.
Weening had brought natural steaks to the taste test to compare with those served at the Prime Rib. Derewicz declined to say where the beef served at his restaurant comes from, or under what conditions these cattle are raised, but he praised the taste of the natural strip steaks Weening provided. However, Derewicz said that given natural beef's small market share, he is not convinced that the current meat scare is any more than a rumble.
"After 35 years, we've ridden out a lot of trends here at the Prime Rib. Martinis were in, then out. Cigars were out, then in," he said. "Sure, the beef industry is moving away from growth hormones and antibiotics. But I'm on the floor here every night, and I don't ever hear this issue raised."
If and when such health concerns do reach Derewicz's ear, it will probably be because of the ruckus continuing to be raised by Eric Schlosser. A little less than a century after Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a 1906 book that first exposed unsanitary practices in meatpacking and cattle raising, Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001), has stirred things up again with an equally gruesome description of today's unsavory practices.
Thanks in part to Fast Food Nation, there is also growing criticism aimed at America's "factory-farm" system, in which 8 billion animals a year - mostly chickens - are raised in huge production and slaughtering facilities.
The controversy heated up earlier this year when a heifer in Alberta, Canada, was discovered to have mad cow disease. This summoned memories of Britain's experience with this calamity, as well as America's outbreaks of E. coli in 1992 and 1993. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, the McDonald's Corp. - America's largest purchaser of beef - stated it no longer would allow its suppliers to use antibiotics in either caring for sick animals or to promote a faster rate of growth in healthy animals.
It remains to be seen if such actions can slow the overall downward trend in America's annual consumption of beef. In 1976, when consumption was at an all-time high, the average citizen ate 88.8 pounds of beef a year. In 2001, the last year for which the U.S. Department of Agriculture has statistics, this number was 63.1 pounds, a drop of nearly 30 percent. And experts say that even the popularity of the Atkins diet hasn't significantly reversed the continuing decline.
The survey says ...
In May, some of America's foremost scientists, chefs and cattle ranchers met at New York City's W Hotel to discuss the future of the meat industry. At the time, results from a national survey of 1,000 Americans conducted in March and May of 2003 by Synovate, a consumer research company, were released.
These suggested that only 48 percent of Americans know that the beef and chicken they regularly buy in supermarkets is raised on feed with antibiotics in it. Yet, once they were made aware of this, almost six in 10 said they would prefer to buy meat that didn't have antibiotics or growth hormones.
The W Hotel panelists also explained how it is that America's beef has become so drug-laced. Before the mid-1960s, when major slaughterhouses or disassembling plants were built, most cattle was raised to an average weight of 700 pounds. At the new, enormous facilities, however, it quickly was discovered that much larger beef carcasses didn't take much longer to disassemble. A race was soon under way to fatten up cattle with ever-increasing speed - a process that led to using growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics to hasten weight gain. As a result, the average beef carcass today is nearly 1,200 pounds.
It is now estimated that agricultural use accounts for 40 percent of the antibiotics sold each year in the United States. More ominously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has concluded that the use of antibiotics in animal feed is the dominant explanation for why such food-borne pathogens as Campylobacter and salmonella are becoming more resistant to antibiotics.
Margaret Mellon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Agriculture and Biotechnology program, said the problem is especially acute because there are no new antibiotics being developed by the pharmaceutical industry. "We need to protect the miracle drugs we have," she said, "because they're all we've got for the foreseeable future."
Tina Semelka, an Edgemere homemaker shopping for groceries recently at the Inner Harbor, said she hadn't thought much about beef safety until she had children. Around that time, her neighbors - who eat only organic food - educated her about antibiotics and growth hormones in meat.
Limits for kids
She now strictly limits how often her children can eat at fast-food restaurants, and even measured their blood pressure recently after they'd eaten a McDonald's cheeseburger.
"I showed them how their blood pressure dropped as their bodies struggled to digest the meat," she said. "They thought that was really weird."
Some might consider Semelka's zealotry a bit weird. As one of the newest converts to the increasing outcry about meat safety, however, Semelka is concerned about what she considers the federal government's inattention to the issue.
"Meat that doesn't have antibiotics and growth hormones should be available to everyone, not just those like me who were fortunate enough to be made aware of the issue," she said. "It's not like there haven't been enough warnings, what with mad cow disease and E. coli."
K. Dun Gifford of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a nonprofit organization that promotes healthful eating and sustainable agriculture, suggested that altering America's beef-eating habits will require change from the grass-roots level.
"It's a little like why attitudes have shifted toward smoking or wearing seatbelts," he said. "The wide availability of lean and clean meat will come about through a change in behavior, not of politics."