Recipe Site Epicurious Takes Beef Off the Plate

Citing climate concerns, its editors say it won't publish any new beef recipes.

friends eating vegan lunch
Friends enjoy a vegan lunch.

Getty Images / Hinterhaus Productions

Condé Nast-owned recipe website Epicurious made a big announcement this week. It will stop publishing and promoting any new recipes featuring beef in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. As its editors explained, "We’ve cut out beef. Beef won’t appear in new Epicurious recipes, articles, or newsletters. It will not show up on our homepage. It will be absent from our Instagram feed." 

They go on to say the cooking site has actually been doing this quietly since fall 2019, slowly weaning itself off beef and substituting plant-based recipes instead.

"For every burger recipe we didn’t publish, we put a vegetarian recipe into the world instead; rather than articles about ground beef, we talked about alt-meats from brands like Lightlife... And last summer, when America’s annual grilling holiday rolled around, we set our fires on cauliflower and mushrooms, not steaks and hot dogs." 

The unwitting readers have been receptive throughout the past year, with traffic and engagement numbers reflecting the public's enthusiasm. "When given an alternative to beef, American cooks get hungry," the editors wrote.

Now that the announcement has been formally made, there's bound to be shock and pushback from Americans, many of whom feel deeply attached to beef and to what food historian Bruce Kraig has described as a "deep American ideology in which abundant food, especially meat, suggests 'the promise of America,' the American cornucopia, and defines who we are as Americans."

It comes the same week as so-called "meat wars" play out between political parties, with many Republicans claiming President Joe Biden's climate plan included a declaration on shrinking red meat consumption to four pounds a year — or roughly one hamburger per month. 

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the Washington Post this is not true. "There is no such effort or policy that exists by this administration. It’s not a part of the climate plan nor the emissions targets. It is not real."

But the bear has been poked and won't settle easily.

Back to the announcement by Epicurious: This is arguably one of the most definitive climate mitigation steps taken by a major company, especially considering that it takes effect immediately (and even retroactively), rather than in the nebulous future. It is a bold, brave, and determined decision based on science:

"Almost 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally come from livestock (and everything involved in raising it); 61 percent of those emissions can be traced back to beef. Cows are 20 times less efficient to raise than beans and roughly three times less efficient than poultry and pork. It might not feel like much, but cutting out just a single ingredient — beef — can have an outsize impact on making a person’s cooking more environmentally friendly."

Epicurious says it sees the choice of what to cook and eat as a powerful one, especially because it's made three times a day. Its own mission as a recipe site is to provide cooking inspiration, and so it hopes to influence home cooks toward more sustainable forms of eating by making its food coverage more sustainable, too.

It's interesting that Epicurious doesn't get drawn into the debate over the quality of meat. Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University, tweeted his support for the initiative and described the inevitable backlash that will come from both sides of the meat-producing world.

He writes, "Big conventional producers will say their greenhouse gas emissions are greatly improved... smaller 'regenerative' producers will claim how they exemplify sustainable production... BUT we can't eat 50+ lbs of beef per US person/yr without also competing with forests, cropland & wildlife. 'Better beef' also means eating far less."  (See full thread below.)

Swapping out beef for other types of meat is not necessarily kinder, however, if animal welfare is your concern. Brian Kateman of the Reducetarian Foundation, which advocates for a widespread reduction in the number of animal products consumed (as opposed to full abstinence by a few), shared his thoughts with Treehugger. He acknowledged that highlighting beef's climate impact is great, but if Epicurious inadvertently causes people to switch from beef to poultry or fish, there could be an enormous amount of added suffering in the world.

"This is because chickens and fish are much smaller than cows and therefore eating poultry and seafood causes more animals to suffer and die on factory farms. Consider that, because of this size difference, the vast majority of animals raised for food are chickens and fish, not cows... To correct for this, Epicurious would do well to instead consider encouraging folks to eat mess meat, not less beef specifically. That would be a win-win."

By dropping beef, Epicurious will likely do that, anyway – encouraging people to seek out alternatives as they become aware of meat's outsized environmental impact. As Hayek wrote: "They're not telling everyone to go beefless; they're opening the door for better options that are compatible with a sustainable food future."

Think of it as a gateway lifestyle choice, of sorts: Once beef is off the plate, it becomes easier to imagine replacing additional animal proteins with plant-based alternatives. It's also less of a shock to readers who are not ready for their favorite recipe site to go vegan or vegetarian all of a sudden.

This announcement is impressive and one can't help feeling a great deal of admiration for Epicurious taking such a step. It's so real and immediate, so drastic and efficient, the kind of climate action Greta Thunberg has been urging us all to make when she said, "Everything needs to change – and it has to start today."

Who knew a cooking website would put every other company's climate pledges and promises to shame? But, then again, why not? Everything starts at the table.