Organic beef boon
Published: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 11:43 p.m.
FYI: PROPOSED BEEF LABELS
Inconsistent labeling means consumers never know exactly what they are buying when choosing alternatives to mass-produced beef, food safety advocates say. To ease concern and bring consistency to the meat cooler, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service is proposing the following rules for meat labeling expected to be made final this spring:
Five weeks after the announced discovery of mad cow disease in a single Washington state dairy cow, cattle ranchers across the country who raise beef on grass or organic feed are reporting a surge in demand for their products.
While there are no state or federal agencies tracking the monthly movement of chemical-free beef, interviews with a half-dozen ranchers, suppliers and industry watchers in Florida and nationwide suggest that since last month, sales have increased by as much as 300 percent.
"It's almost been better for me than not having mad cow," said Lee Windham, co-owner of 4 Arrows Ranch in Fort McCoy. Since Dec. 23, sales of her organic grass-fed Angus have roughly tripled, she said.
"People who were on the fence saying, 'Maybe I'd try that sometime,' after mad cow they said, 'I want some,' " Windham said of her hormone-free products.
"It accelerated people toward (wanting) a healthier product."
Agriculture officials believe that mad cow disease - known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy - is transmitted through grain containing protein or bone meal from infected animals. While such feed was banned in 1997, some consumers have questioned enforcement of that ban.
Last month, those worries were realized when a cow imported from Canada tested positive for the disease.
But while the market value of conventional beef appears to be rebounding after a monthlong international ban on U.S. products, producers of alternative beef say their consumer base continues to grow, with no signs of slowing down.
"Since mad cow we have tripled our sales," said Lynette Blackwell, a customer service representative for American Grass Fed Beef in Doniphan, Mo., which sells natural meat produced on 4,000 acres to customers nationwide via the Internet.
Before the disease was discovered, Blackwell said, the farm's monthly gross hovered around $18,000. Sales in January approached the $50,000 mark.
"It's ungodly," she said.
Jo Robinson, a Washington State author who has written extensively about the benefits of eating pastured and grass-fed livestock, says the reason for the industry's recent growth spurt is largely due to a changed perception of how 99 percent of the nation's beef is produced.
"Meat safety is the No. 1 concern for people when they are shopping," Robinson said in a telephone interview from her home near Seattle.
And because "all of the evidence suggests that it's contaminated tissue being fed to cattle as being the source for BSE," she said - a practice which appears to have been the source of the most recent mad cow case - many consumers are now looking for products they perceive as safer.
But while mad cow has provided a boost to producers of chemical-free beef, the move toward grass-fed and organic products - by both consumers and producers - isn't new, Robinson said.
For example, since launching eatwild.com in February 2000 as a clearing-house for information on pasture-based farming, the number of ranchers listing products online has grown from about 40 to more than 600, she said.
Traffic to her site has also increased, from a low of 50 hits a day four years ago to about 1,200 daily last month. In January, daily traffic to eatwild.com reached 2,500.
National organic growth figures support Robinson's observations.
While grass-fed and naturally raised beef accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's $70 billion cattle industry, the number of certified organic beef cows in the United States jumped nearly 250 percent between 1997 and 2001 - to 15,200 - according to the USDA.
That number represents cows in 27 states, with nearly a quarter of those owned by Texas ranchers, the agency's Economic Research Service reported in its 2001 organic farming update.
In Florida, official counts are less clear. Neither the Florida Farm Bureau nor the Florida Cattlemen's Association tracks the organic or grass-fed sectors of the industry. State farmers estimate there are between 10 and 15 producers of natural beef who market directly to consumers, raising between 50 and 100 cows each.
Areas of concernNot everyone is in agreement that the surge in grass-fed and organic beef production is a good thing, however.
For one, critics point to inconsistencies in labeling non-conventional beef as cause for concern.
Terms like "natural," for example, are so vague that virtually any rancher can call something "natural," even if small amounts of hormones are used, experts say. A "grass-fed" label signifies 80 percent or more of a cattle's energy source came from grass or pasture forage.
The federal government's "organic" standards are more stringent, and require that meat comes from cattle fed only vegetarian grass or grain, and contains no pesticides or hormones.
But many farmers - citing the high cost of USDA certification - say they have chosen to opt out of the federal labeling system, instead relying on their word to ensure customers that their products were produced using strict federal-like guidelines.
And that troubles some industry experts.
"If you just buy some meat from somebody on the side of the road or a small producer, there is not that (third) party involved doing that inspection like there is in the commercial industry," said Roger West, president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association.
The cost to the consumer is also a significant disadvantage, some say. Grass-fed and organic meat, for example, can cost 50 percent more than mass-produced options.
Still, for those who farm organic or pastured beef as an alternative to commercially produced meat, mad cow disease has left them little doubt about their product's value.
"I believe there are real benefits to grass-fed beef," said Al Rosas, a Marion County producer of chemical-free meat, who has also reported a recent spike in sales. "You don't feed your cattle cattle, so there's no threat from BSE. I can have a rare burger and not worry about it."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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