At Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe in Denver, Colorado, Kate Kavanaugh trimmed the sinew from a deep-red hunk of beef the size of a bed pillow.
“Flat iron steak is the second-most tender muscle in a steer’s body,” she said, focused on her knife work. “This guy sits on the scapula, and I love it because it has beautiful lacy fat.”
After the meat was cut into several smaller steaks, she wrapped one up, grabbed a couple of tallow cubes moulded into the shapes of Star Wars characters and headed to a kitchen to cook us some lunch.
Before she was a butcher, Kavanaugh was a strict vegetarian. She stopped eating meat for more than a decade, she said, out of a deep love for animal life and respect for the environment. She became a butcher for exactly the same reasons.
Kavanaugh, 30, is one in a small but successful cadre of like-minded former vegetarians and vegans, who became butchers in hopes of revolutionising the food system in the US. Referring to themselves as ethical butchers, they have opened shops that offer meat from animals bred on grassland and pasture, with animal well-being, environmental conservation and less wasteful whole-animal butchery as primary goals.
It is a sharp contrast to the industrial-scale factory farming that produces most of the nation’s meat and that has come under investigation and criticism for its waste, overuse of antibiotics, and inhumane, hazardous conditions for the animals. The outcry has been so strong that some meat producers say they are changing their practices. But these newer butchers contend that the industry is proceeding too slowly, with a lack of transparency that does not inspire trust.
“I’m basically in this to turn the conventional meat industry on its head,” she said, as Darth Vader melted in her hot cast-iron pan.
Once the tallow was liquid, she added the steak, letting the meat sizzle as she hummed The Imperial March. She left it in the pan a lot longer than I was expecting - like many of her ex-vegetarian customers, Kavanaugh prefers her steaks cooked to medium.
The ethical butchery movement first gained traction about 15 years ago, in the wake of journalist Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the abuse of factory-farmed beef cattle and his subsequent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006.
One of the central questions in the book is whether Pollan can bring himself to kill an animal - first some chickens, then a wild pig - for his own dinner.
This challenge struck a chord with many people, including vegans and vegetarians looking to change the factory-farming system.
For Janice Schindler, 28, who was a vegan for five years and is the general manager of the Meat Hook butcher shop in Brooklyn, New York City, the animal in question was a turkey, at a “Kill Your Own Thanksgiving Dinner” event at a local farm.
“I’d never killed anything before. Turkeys are such large animals. But when you put them in a poultry cone upside down, they completely relax. Then you can cut an artery. It stuns them, and they bleed. I spent the rest of the day working the eviscerating station. It was super-gross, but I found it fascinating.”
That experience was the gateway to her training as a butcher, which she began immediately afterwards.
The system that she, Kavanaugh and many other of these butchers embrace is rooted in grassland ranching, in which grazing animals play an integral role in sustainability. They do so by providing manure for fertiliser, which encourages the growth of a diversity of grasses, and by lightly tilling the soil with their hooves, which allows rainwater to reach the roots.
The system’s advocates say it can regenerate vast swaths of grassland, which has the potential to sequester carbon rather than emitting it as factory farm operations do (critics of the alternative approach say that not all studies show improved carbon sequestration on grazed grassland and that the system can’t produce enough meat to meet current demand).
“I grew up hiking the prairies of Colorado, and I developed a really deep love for those plains,” Kavanaugh said. “When I decided to open a butcher shop, I knew I only wanted to source 100%-grass-fed animals, from ranches that were helping regenerate the prairies.”
Raising grazing animals on grassland, however, is significantly more expensive than raising steers on feedlots, making the meat more costly for consumers. Kavanaugh, for example, charges R322 a 455g for top sirloin steak, as compared with $8.99 at a nearby King Soopers supermarket.
When Joshua Applestone, 49, opened Fleisher’s Grass Fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, in 2004, he was a fourth-generation butcher and first-generation former vegetarian. By opening Fleisher’s - one of the first ethical butcheries in the US - he sought to make this type of meat more available.
“When we first opened, people were surprised at the prices,” he said. “But our costs are much higher than what a giant company pays. We are paying to have control over the quality of our animals, what they are being fed, how they are being treated, transported, slaughtered and cut up. Once people understood that, the business took off.”
As Anya Fernald, one of the founders of Belcampo Meat Co, put it: “Cheap meat isn’t a win. I want people to spend the same amount on meat as they do now, and buy better meat, but less of it.”
Fernald, 44, became a vegetarian as a teenager, on the day she learned that it can take as much as 5.5kg of grain to yield 554g of beef.
“The underlying fallacy here is that cows don’t have to eat grain,” she said. “They have five stomachs evolved to eat grass.”