Beef was already the red-hot topic du jour this week when food website Epicurious on Monday made some meaty news: It would no longer publish recipes using beef, citing the environmental harm caused by cattle farming.
"Our shift is solely about sustainability, about not giving airtime to one of the world's worst climate offenders," senior editor Maggie Hoffman and former digital director David Tamarkin wrote in a post announcing the decision.
Reaction was swift, and illustrated the meaning of the metaphor about tossing red meat to a crowd. Some praised the decision, noting that tastes have changed and that readers are looking for more plant-based, less meaty dishes. Others slammed Epicurious for "canceling" beef.
Much of that backlash had to do with the political moment red meat already was having. Over the weekend, conservative media had pushed stories falsely claiming that the Biden administration's plan to halve greenhouse gas emissions in a decade would require Americans to drastically reduce their meat consumption. Fox News ran breathless coverage of it, with chyrons blaring "BYE BYE BURGERS" and "UP IN YOUR GRILL."
A graphic falsely claimed that the Biden plan required people to "cut 90% of red meat from diet, max 4 lbs per year, one burger per month."
Epicurious declined to comment, but its editors portrayed the choice to eschew beef as a small but significant step toward a more sustainable food system. "It might not feel like much, but cutting out just a single ingredient – beef – can have an outsize impact on making a person's cooking more environmentally friendly," they wrote.
The platform, which is owned by Condé Nast, had actually stopped publishing new recipes containing beef about a year ago, the editors wrote. They decided to make the announcement now, they said, with beef consumption starting to "creep up" after a long decline. "The conversation about sustainable cooking clearly needs to be louder; this policy is our contribution to that conversation," Hoffman and Tamarkin wrote.
Although Fox News host John Roberts admitted that the graphic that ran during his show was untrue, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle, and it had already taken off on social media, prompting some lawmakers to vow they would defend their beloved steaks and patties from the clutches of the White House.
'This seems a little short-sighted'
While many people commenting on the Epicurious move seemed to be motivated by the partisan pro-beef sentiment circulating on social media, the announcement also disappointed many people in the food and animal-welfare world.
"I love Epicurious, but this seems a little short-sighted," said Danielle Nierenberg, a food activist and the founder of Food Tank, a nonprofit focused on sustainability and equity.
She notes that not all beef is equal, and that there are options for more sustainable beef, including regenerative farming methods and pasture-raised cattle. "It might be good to reduce our meat consumption, but it could mislead consumers into thinking that all beef is bad," she says. "There are small-scale producers who need consumers' support."
Others noted that beef isn't the only food whose farming has environmental costs. "Factory farming of anything from corn to cattle is environmentally destructive," one user wrote. "To say beef is bad but chicken is okay is hypocritical."
In the editors note, Epicurious acknowledged that beef isn't the only potentially problematic ingredient to be found in recipes. "All ruminant animals (like sheep and goats) have significant environmental costs, and there are problems with chicken, seafood, soy, and almost every other ingredient," they wrote. "In a food system so broken, almost no choice is perfect."
And although Epicurious explained its reasoning as purely an environmental one, animal advocates were disappointed that the publication didn't take other factory farming into account. Lewis Bollard, the farm animal welfare program officer at Open Philanthropy Project, said he welcomes the increasing attention to the environmental impacts of meat, but says he hopes people adopt a more inclusive definition of "sustainability."
"The broader conception of sustainability is not just about the carbon emissions, it's 'is this a socially acceptable system? Is it sustainable for the community, and for animals?'"
He fears that urging people to simply drop beef – instead of reducing their overall consumption of all kinds of meat – will drive more people to simply substitute more chicken, which has environmental and animal welfare costs of its own. "An eat-less-meat message is less controversial and ultimately more productive," he said. "Because the problem is not the existence of beef but the level of meat consumption."