Megnut

Grass-fed Montana beef from La Cense

About two months ago I received an email from La Cense Beef telling me about their grass-fed beef and asking if I'd be interested in writing about it for my site. I replied and asked for some "review steaks" (a la Michael Pollan) so I could try the product before writing about it. To my amazement, they said yes and sent me two steak burger patties, a ribeye, and a New York strip steak. And over the past six weeks, we've eaten it all and I am here to report: yum! First, a bit about the beef, which comes from Montana and is raised without added hormones or antibiotics:

La Cense Beef is natural and fed only grass. Unlike some other “grass-fed” brands, La Cense cattle are never fed grain to “finish” and produce rapid weight gain. The introduction of any amount of grain to the diet of cattle can diminish the quality of the beef, reducing both health benefits and the real beef flavor that makes this a truly epicurean ingredient for your finest meals.

La Cense Beef is produced exclusively from cattle born and raised on the La Cense ranch. La Cense Beef is not produced from cattle raised by a consortium of other ranchers. In this manner, La Cense is able to oversee quality production and adherence to its standards for humane care, as well as ensure that La Cense cattle never come into contact with other herds, which might lead to contamination or transmission of disease.

We started with the burgers, which I overcooked a bit but had a very nice heft and flavor to them. Next we ate the New York strip and I was very impressed with it. Some grass-fed beef I've had has been pretty lean, so even if it's undercooked a bit, it still may lack some moistness that makes a steak so good. But not this strip. It had a nice strip of fat along one side and it stayed juicy throughout cooking. It also had a great chewiness and tang, and what I can only describe as a real beef flavor. We ate the ribeye last and enjoyed that as well. And we had to cook all of them indoors on our cast-iron "grill." I can only imagine how good they would have tasted had they been done outdoors over fire!

We don't eat that much beef. When we do, I like it to be grass-fed and humanely raised but I also want it to taste delicious. La Cense beef makes that possible. Jason had a great steak frites at Bouchon last weekend. With the help of the Bouchon cookbook, we're going to attempt re-create it here at home with a flat iron steak I just ordered from La Cense.

There are 17 responses

There didn't seem to be any indication that you paid for the steaks; their approximate retail cost appears to be in the neighborhood of $40. In addition to the positive writeup on your site, you also include a two paragraph excerpt from their website. Do you feel your writeup of the La Cense steaks was ethical? It feels like you essentially asked for free steaks in exchange for writing a positive review.

When I was in college I wrote for my university's daily newspaper. I wrote for the Arts section and so I reviewed movies, concerts, books, CDs, etc. I was always given review copies of books and CDs, attended the press screenings of films, and got complimentary tickets for the concerts I attended. Never once did I feel that having received the item "for free" compromised my ability to fairly critique it. (I recall a scathing review I penned for Joe Pesci's "The Super." No amount of free could have changed my mind about that thing.)

Regarding the steaks: I feel like I asked for free steaks in exchange for simply a review. I couldn't very well review their product without eating it. I didn't want to link to it without knowing its quality. And I'm not in the habit of shelling out $40 from my pocket to review someone's product. La Cense took a chance sending me those steaks. I could have hated them and written something bad for all to see. Heck, I could have just eaten the steaks and never written anything. Plenty of people read review copies of books they're sent and never write the review!

So that's the long answer for Yes, I think my write up was ethical. I even disclosed that I got the steaks for free, something most newspapers don't tell you when you read an opera or restaurant review. If I hadn't enjoyed the steaks I would have written a different review. I certainly wouldn't have gone ahead and ordered more, this time using my own money. And I quoted some of their marketing copy because I felt it made sense to explain their product in their own words, not mine.

As someone who got--and accepted--the same offer (steaks coming in another week or so), I told the p.r. person the same thing I tell my readers. I don't promise a review of any kind.

I struggle with this constantly, and it's a constant topic in the wine writing world. I feel that my integrity is one of my selling points as a freelance writer. But paid publications can have stricter policies because they can say things like "Here's my editorial calendar, so I'll solicit samples relative to that." (a not uncommon stance) I don't have that luxury, but I do feel like it's research for my job, which I interpret as providing information to my readers (both my blog's and those who subscribe to the magazines I write for).

(This is all for my own purposes--when I'm on assignment I follow the magazine's policy. Some clients push me to get samples, others offer to cover expenses in certain cases.)

In my case, since I have a favorite grass-fed beef provider here in California, I want to try the "taste the terroir" test. This sample enables my ability to check out this common claim about grass-fed beef, but it's not something I would've thought of on my own, and it's not something a lot of people get to do.

Honestly, if you disclose what you have received from the manufacturer (in this case, some steaks to try out), I think your readers have all the information they need to make an informed decision about your review.

I think it is perfectly fair to review something you haven't paid for, particularly as you inform us of that.

What interests me more is what you would have done if you didn't like the product. You say you would have put up a different review. Is this so, or would you simply not post anything? Do you feel that you have to post some form of comment regarding any and every free sample you take from a supplier?

I even disclosed that I got the steaks for free, something most newspapers don't tell you when you read an opera or restaurant review.

This nondisclosure by newspapers may be because that paper did pay for the meal. This is strict policy at my newspaper, for example. I surely can't speak for all newspapers, but every daily paper I have personal experience with has a similar policy. I really don't have any experience with magazines, but from reading Derrick's comment, it sounds like policies may differ there.

Our situation is different, of course, because there is a newspaper budget to cover the cost of meals for reviews -- that cost isn't borne by the individual writer like it would have to be in the case of your blog. It's not as if comps aren't offered; it's just that the paper has decided it would rather be able to tell readers we always pay for the product just like they do, instead of answering the inevitable question that your reader has raised here.

And just to be clear: I'm not saying that this kind of policy at a newspaper means that your La Cense review was unethical. I tend to agree with Rebecca that your disclosure provided your readers with important information. I'm commenting because when I read your post, it seemed to imply that it's common practice for newspapers to accept meals but hide the fact that they were free. In my experience, this isn't the case.

Is this so, or would you simply not post anything? Do you feel that you have to post some form of comment regarding any and every free sample you take from a supplier?

In this case, I probably would have felt obligated to provide some public feedback, since I asked for the steaks and felt that somewhat committed me to a review. I feel less obligated when someone sends me something unsolicited. But it's a tricky issue: I don't want to do deliberate damage. And maybe I have a terrible palate for beef, who knows? It's something to be aware of when reviewing, that's for sure.

I'm commenting because when I read your post, it seemed to imply that it's common practice for newspapers to accept meals but hide the fact that they were free. In my experience, this isn't the case.

Ryan, yeah, it's hard to be clear because for restaurant reviews, the paper usually pays and avoids comps. But with other things, e.g. movies and shows, the press usually goes to a free press screening (which I don't recall seeing disclosed). I didn't mean to conflate the issues, nor imply that papers were hiding something.

What is important to note though is that in all cases, the reviewer receives the reviewed item for free, whether or not his/her publication pays for it. That fact would seem to negate the argument that receiving something for free biases the reviewers opinion of said product.

I'd agree that getting something for free doesn't necessarily mean you aren't going to be honest in your review. Your La Cense review didn't change my opinion of your credibility (for whatever that's worth!), but that may well be because I've read your blog for long enough that I feel like you'd call something crap if you thought it was crap.

I have to admit, though, that your reviews of meals that you paid for yourself (French Laundry, for example), are that much more meaningful to me when I consider what would make me willing to part with my own cash.

In general, I think the more important thing is that a comp can create the appearance of a relationship -- on at least some level -- between the reviewer and the reviewed. Something that's mitigated, perhaps, when the reviewer is being reimbursed by a publication. Or in the case of an unsolicited book or CD, when there's no communication between the parties before the review.

My opinion is you and your site have integrity. I trust your judgement and believe you are honest in your reviews. That matters much more to me than whether you paid for the product or not. I don't believe that you could be "bought" for $40 worth of meat. It just wouldn't be worth it.

I used to review video games for a major daily newspaper in NYC. Sometimes, if it was a game I wanted to review, I would call the PR folks and ask for a copy. More often than not, they would send me any and all games upon their release - including the consoles themselves - without me having to ask.

Many of the bigger companies would send extra swag along with the games themselves (stuffed animals, skateboards, Dom Perignon). Most of the time, I'd give this extra stuff away (and most of the games too, actually).

I think the game magazines had much less stringent policies than the papers do, but free crap is really part of the business. Without free product, there would be very few product reviews in the media - mainstream, blog, or otherwise.

While restaurant reviewers generally pay for their meals, theater critics usually do not, and book reviewers almost never do.

(Early in Eastgate's history, the New Yorker called to request review copies of a number of our titles and insisted on paying for them. I believe that's the only occasion on which we're aware of that having happened in nearly twenty years of publishing.)

At TEKKA, we regularly request review copies of books and software. On occasion, we'll also purchase books and software -- either because we want to help out a new press or because it's simply easier. We never tell reviewers whether or not we paid for their books, and reviewers almost never buy the books themselves.

As a 30 year print journalism veteran I find there to be no critical ethical issues in what you have with the steaks. I concur that as long as the provider was taking his chances, then you are on solid ground. I would say that if integrity is to be maintained the obligation is to either publish a review that says which way you went on the steaks, either yeah or nay, because unlike a book review, where the reader can say this is utter trash and im returning it to the bookstore, once the steak is bought, cooked and less than palatable..... very few food vendors are going to give you your money back. So i guess the obligation of the food reviewer is higher in terms of calling it what it is.

A PR flack recently asked if I wanted a review copy of a book and I accepted, while making it clear that I did _not_ promise to write a review or that the review would be positive if I wrote it.

It turned out the book wasn't particularly interesting from a food/cooking POV. In fact, I didn't finish it. In this case I elected not to do a review because I simply didn't think the book was worth that much additional effort on my part. Panning a product in print requires at least as much effort as praising it.

I think if you had failed to disclose that you got the steaks for free, that would be ethically suspect. As it is, you disclosed the information and left it to your readers to evaluate the review with that knowledge. From my perspective, that's completely appropriate.

I posted this all over at food blog s'cool as well.

putting on my journalist hat (some of you may know that in real life I have been a journalist and editor for more than twenty years in areas where we get serious pressure from PR agencies and product manufacturers and vendors - stuff like reviewing 100 computer systems in a month) this is absolutely normal practice. There are some basic rules.

1. all products are supplied under absolutely no guarantee or undestanding that they will be written about.
2. No product valued at over $40 may be kept or retained for personal or professional use - if the vendor doesn't want it back then you have to donate it.
3. the exception to the above is more germane to food - obviously destructive testing is an exception - ie eating the food product!
4. usage of the product is no guarantee of coverage
5. coverage may or may not be positive
6. there is no implied contract in accepting a product for review

Then there are some unwritten rules - gratuitous negative publicity is frowned upon - that is negative publicity that serves no purpose except to be malicious. That does NOT include a negative review based on facts but it does include mocking a product or vendor without trying it. Same is true of gratuitous positive publicity.

That's about it - interestingly there is also no reason to disclose whether or not the product was free. The very few publications and areas that actually pay for products ALWAYS make a big fuss about that. In fact, I only know of two - restaurant reviews and Consumer Reports. I can honestly say that I don't think the policy makes for better reviews (Consumer Reports' computer reviews are a case in point) although it does seem to guarantee integrity. However, integrity doesn't come from guarantees - it comes from having it and using it - I have found that it is always obvious when you can't trust a publication of any kind and when you can trust a publication.

In this case it is obvious that Meg has integrity.

I too was offered the steaks. Like Derrick I am more interested in terroir than pure taste (and I'm also interested in statistics if any for BSE rates with grass-fed versus grain and if grain means grain product ie meal, etc.). And I will decide if I write about them after I eat them.

A similar debate happened recently at la.foodblogging. Obviously, reviewers/bloggers can't be expected to pay for all the products they review (lest we only read independently wealthy bloggers.) I think disclosing the compensation is enough fair-warning. And a merchant spreading around their product for free is hardly nefarious either. How else can you generate buzz? However, I think the reviewer should mention price (as Meg did) and whether or not she would consider it a good buy and purchase the product herself.

I'm an ex-magazine editor and now a food blogger. Professional journalists are constantly being sent products by PR companies or FMCG companies. It's pretty much standard practice to accept these without having to pay for them. The journalists, however, aren't under any obligation to rave about or even write about these products. As bloggers, we are being treated more and more frequently like real media professionals. Which is a good thing. Which also means we should feel free to accept products without making any promises. If we like something that's been given to us, we can honestly write good thing about it. If we don't like it, we can choose to (a) either not write about it at all or (b) post a negative review. I've made it clear to all brand managers and PR companies I've comunicated with that I don't see the point of negative reviews. Which means that I only post positive reviews on things that I genuinely feel positive about. But that means that readers will never know just how many things I've decided not to waste their time with.

Meg, I think you've done nothing wrong. In fact, you've done everything right.

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