It was more than eight months ago that I sipped a margarita on the patio of Mandalay Bay’s Border Grill and listened to Mary Sue Milliken espouse the virtues of meat and poultry that are free of hormones and antibiotics. The topic wasn’t new to me—in many ways she was preaching to the choir. But Milliken (much like her business partner Susan Feniger) is someone who is always eager to educate those who talk food with her.
The finances of factory farming aren’t difficult to understand. Pumping an animal full of hormones and/or antibiotics can help it grow larger, and prevent disease outbreaks associated with the deplorable conditions common to modern factory farming. But the effects are unsettled and controversial. Animal hormones have been blamed for everything from cancer to the early onset of puberty in girls. And the flood of antibiotics in our food environment has triggered similar health fears.
“We don’t know everything that these residual antibiotics in the animals and in the water table and the soil does to us,” Milliken says. “But our dieticians say that it kills everything in your gut, and that creates obesity.”
That’s just one of the many reasons why Border Grill and many other top Las Vegas restaurants are opting to use animals raised naturally.
“I don’t eat bad chicken,” Guy Savoy’s executive chef Mathieu Chartron says. “So why would I give my guests bad chicken?” He insists that all of the chicken, beef and veal on his menu is raised naturally, and all of his fish is caught in the wild. The cost might add an extra 10 or 15 percent to the final bill but, he points out, “at the end of the day you’re going to save it on medicine.”
That cost of converting to antibiotic- and hormone-free meats is also unsettled. At Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, where they use free-range chickens raised without hormones or antibiotics, chef Todd Harrington admits his product costs three times as much as mass-produced birds, but says the taste is far better. Over at the Stratosphere, chef Rick Giffen recently switched to using an all-natural product for the lollipop chicken wings in his lounge and saw the raw price rise from about $3.30 a pound to $3.80—but says that increase was offset by labor costs he saved thanks to better preparation. In the meantime Milliken, who supports federal regulations barring the use of certain artificial substances in food, feels the price increase could be reduced to “a couple of cents a pound.” And it’s a price she’s more than happy to pay.
“People should be able to feel they can trust a product when they buy it,” she says of the overall American food supply. “And at this point they can’t.”