Meat is a common generic term meaning flesh, but to chefs it refers specifically to the flesh of four-legged domesticated animals. This includes mainly beef, lamb, and pork. Lamb is becoming popular in America, and pork is gaining in popularity as a lean meat option. But by far, the favorite meat in the United States is beef.
Historically, the cow's size made it more valuable as a draft animal than a source of food. The logistics of slaughtering such a large animal were daunting. Salting was the main method of preserving meat, and this method was not very sophisticated. So, unless there was a real crowd to feed, lamb was a more popular choice. But modern Americans love what cows offer. The cow's meat, milk, and hide easily make it the world's most important domesticated animal.
Beef and veal are readily available in modern supermarkets, and for the most part, quality is high. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grades meat for consumption based on muscle-to-bone and fat-to-muscle ratios. Beef grades, from best to worse, are prime, choice, and select. Lesser grades, used mainly for processed meat products, include standard, commercial, and utility. Grades are stamped in purple on the outer carcass of the animal, and are usually prominently advertised by retailers, especially when the grade is high.
Beef cows are taken to market when they are between eighteen and twenty-four months of age. Before that time the cow is considered veal. Veal is a male dairy cow between sixteen and eighteen months of age. Veal grades, from best to worse, are prime, choice, good, standard, and utility.
The Disadvantages of Meat
Meat is generally considered a high-fat protein choice. Usually fat means flavor. In today's world people appreciate, and even expect, a high level of flavor in their meat, despite full knowledge that saturated fat contributes to coronary artery disease and elevated cholesterol levels.
Lean cuts are available, but even if you cannot see the fat marbled throughout a particular cut, the saturated fat is still present within the muscle cells. When meat is heated, the fat melts and penetrates the muscle. So even if you do not eat the visible fat on a steak, you are consuming saturated fat.
This appetite for fatty beef has drastically changed the landscape of modern agriculture. Today cattle are bred and raised to provide the most meat with the least cost. According to the USDA, the average American consumes sixty-seven pounds of beef every year.
A wild cow would naturally consume fiber-rich plants that are unsuitable for human consumption. Today, cows compete with humans for food, consuming grain grown on valuable fertile soil. In the United States, half of the water and 80 percent of the grain harvested goes to feed livestock.