This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
Jose Gordon approaches the 2,500-kilogram ox gently. The animal eyes him warily but without fear and eventually the famed Spanish chef gets right up beside the great beast and gives him a good scratch between the horns. For some time afterward the ox follows him around the pasture like a puppy.
Gordon has brought me here, to the village of Jimenez de Jamuz in Spain, to introduce me to the animals that will become what is widely considered to be the finest, most tenderly raised and carefully documented meat in the world.
The chef travels all over Spain looking for mature, working oxen that he brings back to his farm in the Castile-Leon region where they live out their final days in relative luxury. He doesn't pick just any ox, however.
"The animal must have a good spirit," Gordon explains through an interpreter. "The farmer who raised it must also have a kind personality. The animals need quiet and something nice to look at."
When it comes time to slaughter, Gordon stays with the animals ensuring they remain calm until the very end. The heads of particularly impressive oxen are mounted above the entrance to the 100-year-old wine cave where he ages much of his meat for as much as 90 days. There probably isn'a chef in the world who knows more about the meat that he serves.
The desire to know more about what we consume isn't just limited to eccentric chefs in remote corners of Spain, however, and the desire to understand the provenance of our food is now something of an obsession.
In a famous sketch from the satirical TV show, Portlandia, a couple of post-hipster diners in a restaurant gently grill the server on the finer points of the chicken on the menu. It is a "heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that's been fed a diet of sheep's milk and hazelnuts," she assures them, adding, "His name was Colin."
While maybe not offering to name your meal, one Toronto chef would like to offer his guests a similar level of knowledge. Danny McCallum, a chef at Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse, is at work on a pilot project with the Ontario farm, Van Groningen Meats, that will give diners an unprecedented look at the life of their steak.
"Right now as a chef I can look up each individual tag number that Van Groningen sends me and I can see who a cow's parents were," McCallum explains. "I can see its phenotypic appearance, so I know its dad was Angus and its mom was Hereford. I can find out what characteristics that particular animal had, when it was born, did it look more like its mom or more like its dad. I know its birth date, I know its carcass weight, pretty much everything about the animal even as far down as its nose print and its hide colour."
McCallum's information is displayed on little more than an Excel spread sheet now, but he plans to make the information a little more appealing. "We're working on QR codes that people can scan with their phones and pull up all of the information and an actual picture of the animal," he says. "I picture it kind of like a hockey card."
This chef will be able to trace the meat from pasture to plate, giving customers the confidence that they're eating the highest quality, humanely raised beef.
It's not just steak lovers who will benefit from this level of information about sustainable, authentic agriculture. In the wine world organizations such as the VQA, Ontario's wine authority, and Quebec's AVQ, seek to ensure the integrity of wines from a particular area while wine makers have long produced specially labelled bottlings of grapes grown in specific vineyards to take advantage of a particular microclimate or soil structure.
In Europe, France's AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) and Italy's DOC (Denominazione di origine controllata) regulate the production and assure the quality of everything from Chianti to Camembert.
Just last week the British Columbia Investment Agriculture Foundation launched the BC Beef Network, an initiative that connects chefs with producers to provide details on where their beef was born, raised and processed in the province. Similarly, the Canadian Pork Council is rolling out PigTrace Canada, a mandatory program for reporting live animal movement that will come into force on July 1, allowing the industry to trace livestock and act quickly on food safety.
Another industry that would like to see more information available to consumers is Canada's fishery. Frank Keitsch, a commercial fisherman in British Columbia, calls the lack of seafood labelling laws in Canada an embarrassment. He says fish are being willfully mislabelled and passed off as something else.
"In the States and in Europe they're very vehement about having labelled fish," he notes, "but here in Canada, for whatever reason, there's no rules."
In an attempt to remedy the situation, Keitsch and others are involved in thisfish.info, a traceability initiative started by Eco Trust Canada that connects consumers directly with fishermen.
"They want their fish to be personally marketed and branded as coming from their vessels, their communities and their region," explains Eric Enno Tamm, ThisFish's director of marketing and communications.
Working with harvesters across the country, fresh and packaged seafood is labelled with a code that consumers can scan with their mobile devices through the thisfish.info website. The code reveals the type of fish, who caught it and how, as well as nutritional information and species range.
The information is available on some products at stores in Western Canada such as Billingsgate Seafood, Thrifty Foods, as well as IGA/Foodland and Sobeys across Canada. "There's been a lot of work done by a non-profit organization in the U.S. called Oceana on seafood mislabelling and fraud and there's a lot of that in the marketplace," Tamm says, "and traceability helps to build trust in the supply chain."
Our appetite for knowing everything we can about what we eat shows no sign of being sated any time soon. With desire and technology combining to give us an unprecedented look at the food we eat, our relationship to what we consume has never been more intimate.