The Surprising World of Corporate 'Meat Reduction' Strategies

Epicurious isn't the only business taking actionable steps to step away from beef.

beef burger with fries


Earlier this week, recipe website Epicurious made a bold and somewhat surprising announcement: The Condé Nast-owned cooking platform is going to stop publishing any new recipes featuring beef. This is, Epicurious admitted, not a silver bullet. It also acknowledged some readers wouldn’t be happy.

But in a move that was no doubt intended to pre-empt the inevitable pro-beef backlash, the site pointed out the shift actually happened some time ago. The editors at Epicurious explained:

“In a food system so broken, almost no choice is perfect. And yet we know that home cooks want to do better. We know because we actually pulled the plug on beef well over a year ago, and our readers have rallied around the recipes we published in beef’s place. For every burger recipe we didn’t publish, we put a vegetarian recipe into the world instead...”

The reason for the move was pretty simple. As Treehugger Design Editor Lloyd Alter has explained before, while environmentalism has long been associated with vegetarianism and/or veganism, when it comes to climate impacts specifically, a majority of the benefits of these diets can be achieved simply by cutting out red meat

Not everyone — even on the pro-climate side — is happy with Epicurious. Plenty of people on Twitter argued that grass-fed beef may be possible to raise entirely sustainably, especially if we can tackle methane emissions. And some suggested that Epicurious would be better off educating readers about different husbandry methods and the potential for improved grazing. 

Here’s the thing though: Even if Epicurious included stipulations about using grass-fed or sustainably raised beef and even if that beef can be raised in some quantities entirely sustainably, it seems fair to suggest that many readers would simply use whatever beef was available to them for a recipe. By literally eliminating beef from its recipes, Epicurious has recognized its role as a driver of demand.

It has also opened itself up to exploring different avenues. Rather than simply educating folks on the impacts of different foods, and then hoping they take the more sustainable option, the site has chosen to direct readers to plant-centered recipes. (After all, I read recipes for specific meal ideas when I am stuck, not for background education on different foodstuffs.) And for folks who aren’t yet ready to give up beef, it seems fair to suggest the world is not short of ideas for how to cook with beef.

True, the Epicurious move does miss the opportunity for more nuanced discussion and potentially important debate. But those debates are happening elsewhere. As long as a majority of beef in America is raised unsustainably, then we’re going to need to bring demand down to sustainable levels — and Epicurious’ decision will directly reduce demand. 

More broadly, this is another example of a growing trend of institutional reducetarianism, where businesses and institutions are taking steps to cut back on the amount of meat associated with their operations. From Ikea’s plant-based meatballs to Sonic’s part beef, part mushroom burger, this trend has taken many forms.

Most recently, Burger King UK decided to mark Earth Day not with the usual press releases about sustainable packaging, but by launching two new plant-based burgers and offering discounts on those products for “Meatless Mondays.” According to some reports, CEO Alasdair Murdoch has pledged to focus on "meat reduction" as part of his company’s climate efforts, which include a promise to reduce greenhouse gases 41% per restaurant by 2030. 

These are interesting times. It would be hard to imagine just a few years ago that large corporations would even be discussing demand reduction or plant-based eating as a significant contributor to their climate strategies. And yet the situation we are in as a society really leaves few other options. 

The question now, of course, is: What happens next? 

As we saw with the fake controversy over a supposed “beef ban” that never was proposed by the Biden administration, we are likely to see both culture wars and corporate pushback from those who profit from either the status quo or societal division. As climate journalist Emily Atkin explained in her newsletter Heated, the beef industry has already been extremely active in pushing back on climate legislation. And we are already seeing plenty of people bragging about their steak as a way to "trigger" those they disagree with. 

And yet, there does seem to be a change both on menus and in board rooms around the country. Let’s just see if those changes translate to a reduction in overall consumption.