A cook's beef with GM foods

Steaks and mince emerge from the oven shrunken and tough, however slowly they are cooked
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The Independent Culture
WE HAVE heard from the scientists, the environmentalists, the farmers, and even, indirectly, the butterflies. But in the whole ill- tempered Europe-US quarrel about scientifically altered food - whether beef with hormones or crops with alien genes - one voice has been missing: that of the cook.

Raw food in the US cooks differently from raw food in Britain or France; it also tastes different, and the comparison is not to the New World's advantage. The reason is simple: so much has been tampered with before it reaches the shops. Take beef.

I remember a time when American beef was the acme of beef, when the fibres were loose and large and the taste - braised, roasted, grilled or barbecued - was second to none. American beef commanded a premium in Britain; well- done or rare, it tasted as we imagined beef should taste. The cognoscenti said that it was because American beef cows were grain-fed.

In France, by contrast, the taste led and texture followed. But from crudely-cut boeuf bourgignon to elegant filet mignon, the beef - whether from butcher or supermarket - was a cook's delight. It behaved in the pan as your cookery books told you it should. However gruesome it may have looked in its raw state, it absorbed exactly the prescribed amount of liquid and exuded precisely the appropriate quantity of juices; and it took exactly as long to cook as it should.

French beef remains just as good, and well-behaved in the pan, as ever it was. British beef (if we pass over the mad-cow episode and consider it purely from the perspective of cook and eater) seems marginally better than it used to be. But alas, alas, for American beef. Anyone in the US with a decent salary and a taste for old-style beef now buys it only at upmarket stores where it is guaranteed "organic", or by mail order from companies such as Omaha Steaks, at premium prices.

Steaks bought at your average supermarket (butchers' shops are a thing of the past in most US cities) may look large and luscious in their cellophane wrap, but are sadly deficient after a touch of the grill. Taste is negligible. No wonder Americans are so liberal with the ketchup bottle. Cheaper cuts and mince tend to emerge from the oven shrunken and tough, however long or slowly they are cooked.

So prevalent are beef-cooking problems that a chef was recently given the front page of a major US newspaper's food section in order to instruct us how we should cook the "new beef". New beef? The answer, should you wish to know, is hotter and faster.

The newspaper's guest chef indicated that the hormone treatment of beef, which has become widespread over the last 10 years, had contributed to the change of character. American food "defamation" laws being what they are, he would have run into big trouble if he had suggested that different might mean "worse", or "less healthy".

There are other explanations, besides hormone additives, for the changed character of American beef. As with the bloated hams, chicken breasts and pork steaks, it may be merely the water content, added to boost the weight at sale, that causes blandness and shrinking. The disinfectant dousing that chickens and shellfish are required to undergo before freezing may reduce the incidence of food-poisoning, but there is a trade-off in taste.

With fruit and vegetables, even paying top whack will not guarantee either taste or "cookability". As buyer and cook, you have not the slightest idea whether the brilliant red tomatoes, gigantic courgettes and supersweet sweetcorn have been genetically modified, as there is no labelling requirement. You do know that an unspecified proportion of tomatoes and almost half of all sweetcorn grown in the US include GM organisms. You also know that these vegetables taste of nothing when raw, and melt to nothing in the oven. They were bred for their looks.

It is noteworthy that the few American food commercials that are not for soft drinks and snacks laud size and looks. For the US mass market those are the selling-points, not taste. Cooking, moreover - day-to-day family cooking, that is -seems a dying art. And if they no longer cook, perhaps Americans simply have not noticed the degeneration of their food?

From New York to San Francisco, however, some of the country's top chefs are voting with their chopping-boards, and leasing or even buying smallholdings to ensure that their dishes cook and taste as they like them. Such a drastic solution may reflect gourmet snobbery or simple despair. The rest of us have little alternative but to turn up the oven, double the measure of garlic, and hope for the best.