Even as more Americans embrace sustainable food, meats often remain the final frontier. Grass-fed, pastured and organic meats can produce wonderful meals, but they can be hard to find, more expensive and a challenge to cook just right.
Still, with a recent swell in films and books ("Food Inc.," "Eating Animals," "The Omnivore's Dilemma," "Animal Factory" and "CAFO") that illustrate problems with industrially raised animals, more consumers are turning to those meats that fall under the "sustainable" umbrella.
These include meats with the certified labels organic, grass-fed, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane and heritage. But they also can include less stringent credentials of Amish, natural, hormone-free, local and pastured.
Though generous estimates place America's sustainable meat supply at less than 5 percent of the overall market, the trend is flowing steadily into the mainstream.
Whole Foods plans a national rollout in the next few months of a color-coded, five-step animal welfare rating system for all of its meat. That will show consumers how long the animal was allowed outdoors, what it ate and how it was treated, among other things.
Grass-fed beef recently has roamed far beyond the borders of high-end restaurants to become an attraction at midrange eateries across the nation with grass-fed burgers. In November, some of the biggest names in food service, production and retail (namely McDonald's, Cargill, JBS and Wal-Mart) co-hosted a conference with the World Wildlife Fund in Denver focused on moving to a more sustainable beef supply.
"This was an unprecedented event and a great first step in our journey to achieve a more sustainable beef industry," said Jason Clay, senior vice president of markets at WWF.
Whether you call the movement clean meat, humane meat or sustainable meat, it's a niche industry that's poised to grow.
"This is no longer a fringe thing," said cookbook author Deborah Krasner. "It's the future, and it's now."
Krasner lives in rural Vermont, where she has raised several animals for meat and eggs. The resulting cooking adventures and lessons serve as the backbone of her authoritative new book, "Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat." The 400-page tome walks readers through the common quandaries of how to find, afford and cook sustainable meat products that often need to be treated differently than industrial meat.
But what is sustainable meat? No one, not even the participants of the sustainable beef conference, has been able to establish a common definition. Krasner has made up her own.
"It's animals who are raised on a diversified farm on grass primarily and are in balance with the environment so their waste doesn't form toxic waste lakes but deepens the fertility of the soil," she said recently as we dove into a lunch of pastured beef and pork sandwiches.
Among the hundreds of recipes in the book for beef, pork, poultry and game are directions for a crispy skinned heritage chicken and the perfect grass-fed steak. The writer believes that those who have had bad experiences with the meats probably didn't cook them correctly.
Though certain breeds of pastured pork can have much more fat and marbling than their industrial counterparts, many breeds of pastured beef and chicken end up with less. And even the farmers who recently have revived traditional breeds and husbandry methods don't always know the best ways to cook the meat they produce.
Grass-fed steak, for example, should be rinsed, dried thoroughly and brought to room temperature before being cooked quickly in a very hot pan. And, Krasner suggested, never cook it beyond medium rare.
Krasner acknowledged the higher costs of sustainable meat but offered several tips on making it more affordable. Pastured heritage chickens can cost up to $30 a bird, but because of their plentiful meat and excellent bones for soup, the author suggested using them for up to five meals, a rich broth for risotto being the last.
Costs can be further trimmed, she said, by thinking ahead - by, for instance, buying half a cow to share among four households.
"The last time I bought half a cow, I split it with three other families, and each of us ended up with about 75 pounds per person at about $6 a pound," she said.
Krasner said she is very excited by the latest science linking conjugated linoleic acids (abundant in the fat and dairy of pastured animals) to human fat reduction, lean muscle development and cancer prevention.
"I don't know how much people think about health when they buy meat, but it is revelatory to think that eating red meat could be not just health neutral but a health benefit," she said.