How meat producers are trying to avoid becoming like dairy farmers competing with nut ‘milks’
At 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night last May, Fancy Radish, a vegetarian restaurant in Washington’s H Street corridor, was hopping. A willowy 20-something dressed in a flowing jumpsuit stood by the door chatting with two asparagus-thin friends in off-the-shoulder tops. So it was easy to spot Kevin Kester, then the president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in his light brown cowboy hat and a gold, steer-shaped pin emblazoned with the stars and stripes on the lapel of his blazer. (The hat, I later learned, is 100 percent beaver and was custom-made in honor of his tenure by Greeley Hat Works in Colorado; it would retail for about $1,000.) For the beef industry’s top lobbyist, trips to Washington often involved dinners at restaurants like the Capital Grille, Mastro’s, Ruth’s Chris or Fogo de Chão, where he usually ordered a porterhouse because, he said, “it has both the New York strip and the filet. And it’s a very large steak.”
I’d invited him here to see how he would fare at a restaurant that prides itself on vegetarian “charcuterie.” But I quickly learned that Kester has no beef with vegetarians. In fact, he enjoys many a vegetable himself: “Avocado, yes. Beets, yes. Radishes, yes,” he said as he scanned the menu. By the time he had drained his pineapple-pandan soda and dutifully swallowed part of the last course, an avocado topped with pickled cauliflower, I’d learned that what worried him — and what brought him to Washington often — was “fake” meat.
By fake, Kester meant the plant-based burgers from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have elbowed their way into grocery-store meat cases next to the sirloins and ground round. In January, Impossible Foods, which is backed by Bill Gates, announced that it is developing a plant-based “steak” that bleeds. Even more worrisome is the much-ballyhooed, but not yet commercially available, “lab” or “cultured” meat, cultivated from animal cells without raising or slaughtering an animal.