Hacking Meat is an online conversation exploring how can information and technology be used to hack (or reimagine) a more sustainable, profitable and healthy future of meat. Join the conversation and share your ideas or product requests in the comments, on Twitter using #hackmeat, on Facebook or at the Hack//Meat hackathon happening December 7-9 in NYC.
Guest post by Arlin Wasserman of Changing Tastes
Processed and prepared foods get a bad wrap, often deservedly so. Too much salt, sugar or fat and not enough flavor or nutrition. That doesn’t stop us from buying them with well over two-thirds of all the consumer food dollars spent on the U.S. going into food bought at restaurants, served in schools and corporate cafeterias, or bought ready to eat (and perhaps heat if we have a minute) from grocery stores. Almost most half of all our food dollars go to buy meals cooked at restaurants and dining halls, where a culinary professional makes the choices for us.
At a time when our interest in how our food is grown, who grew it and where it comes from is greater than ever before, and so is our access to information, we’re also ceding the decision about what ingredients we eat to culinary professionals and businesses. They do the choosing and the cooking, while we do the wondering and caring about the ingredients that go into processed and prepared foods.
Given trends in the U.S. over the past several decades, and the way that people in much older countries and cultures now eat, that’s likely to continue. Our future is one where we’ll be buying and eating more processed and prepared foods and fewer whole ingredients.
On the processed food side, meat does the job so well there’s no comparison to other food processors. That’s thanks to a mix of good genes and getting assigned the right job.
Cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and lots of yummy meaty animals getting around on four legs or two wings all do a much better job of transforming corn, soybeans, wheat, sorghum and other grasses into delicious and nutritious food. Twinkies and Wonder Bread were never even competitive.
The ability of birds and beasts to process a handful plants into food results in craveable food that is driving global changes in diet, health and the environment.
(As a culinary aside, my view is that, often, the only thing we do that makes it even better is the occasional and judicious application of salt, herbs and spices, and some time hanging in the fresh air.)
Our furry and feathered food processors also concentrate plants into meat-food, with poultry turning about four pounds of corn, soybeans and other food into a pound of chicken or turkey. Pigs turning seven or so pounds into one pound of pork, and cows taken as much as ten to make one.
Concentrating plants into edible meat also means we’re concentrating everything that comes with growing those plants in ever-greater quantities:
On this last matter, putting ten pounds of corn and soy into a pound of beef also means putting ten times the risk of poor harvest, drought, flood and record heat years into a company’s finances at a time when “hundred year” storms and heat waves are now likely to occur ever few years.
And, the unique mix of geography, weather, soil and water where we grow grasses and other crops for animal feed also concentrate to form unique flavors in our meat, even if we don’t regularly have meat “flights” and tastings to help us divine their terroir the we do with wines, cheeses and oils.
The future of meat is where technology fits at the ubiquitous intersection of culinary and prepared foods, environment and social risk, terroir and choice.
Whether it’s a business choosing where in the world to buy a hundred thousand cows or a hundred million pounds of meat or a consumer decided where to dine and what to order, what we really need to know before we choose what to eat is what our meat has eaten, or what ingredients go into food processed by animals. That’s key to us knowing how sustainable it is, how much risk our business takes on, or what flavors we can hope to enjoy.
The way we are hacking the food system already has helped bring to light the how and the where about the path our food travels from farm to table, via barge and through factory. Adding in the path it travels through animals on its way to meat on our plate is the future.
Arlin Wasserman is the founder and principal of Changing Tastes. Since 2003, Changing Tastes has worked with food and agriculture companies, venture and philanthropic investors to realize new opportunities at the intersection of sustainability, public health, culinary and demographic trends. Arlin also chairs the Sustainable Business Leadership Council at The Culinary Institute of America, and has served on the board of the Sustainable Food Lab and as a fellow at the Aspen Institute. Nearly two decades ago, Arlin led some of the nation’s first work on the economic, environmental and culinary benefits of local food systems and how terroir fits into the U.S. consumer mindset, before being awarded a national Food and Society Policy Fellowship, funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Arlin also has served as an advisor on food and agriculture, innovation and development issues to the United States Department of Agriculture and several of the nation’s largest private foundations. He has spoken before the European Union Parliament on geographically identified foods and global trade policy. From 2007 to early 2012 Arlin served as Vice President of Sustainability at Sodexo, the world's leading institutional food service provider, developing and implementing the company’s first sustainability strategy. Arlin holds a Master of Science in Natural Resources and a Master of Public Health, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Political Economics, all from the University of Michigan.