Meat of the Matter: Grass Versus Grain

A new study in Washington state has analyzed the potential for producing and marketing grassfed beef.

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture just released “Back to Grass: the Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef,” which (not surprisingly) concluded that “grassfed beef is inaccessible to many consumers due to price premiums.”

Equally obvious, the study’s authors explained, “The price of grassfed beef could come down significantly if the industry were to establish well-managed grass-finishing operations that take advantage of economies of scale in processing, distribution, and marketing.”

Newsflash: Any industry could expand significantly if participants could “take advantage of economies of scale in processing, distribution, and marketing.” That is the core challenge, the ultimate obstacle, the bottom line of being in business. Far from merely being easier said than done, it is the essence of why so many start-ups and even mature companies ultimately fail: Someone else found a better path to efficiency in processing, marketing and distribution.

But back to the future of the grassfed industry.

Currently, the best estimates are that about 97% of all beef entering the retail and foodservice channels comes from cattle that are grain-fed. As the report noted, there is a certain amount of “default” grassfed beef produced from marking cull cows or bulls, animals that ended up spending their lives on pasture. However, the beef from such animals is typically lower quality and used only in ground beef production.

That doesn’t help build quality positioning for producers and marketers of grassfed beef.

The Stone Barns Center report noted the lack of mandatory inspection of marketers selling “grassfed” products, and an inside baseball concern about whether “grain byproducts” are being fed to cattle that ultimately enter grassfed marketing channels.

There are issues with labeling claims of “natural,” “vegetarian fed,” “no artificial hormones,” “antibiotic-free” and “USDA Organic.” This, the authors posit, has created a confusing landscape for consumers.

However, the niche market buyers of grassfed beef aren’t likely to get turned off by the “confusion” of labeling. They know what’s meant by grassfed, and they aren’t purchasing such product under a cloud of confusion.

Rating the Talking Points

But let’s get to the section of the repot that details the advantages of grassfed beef, because these represent the de facto marketing position of virtually all grassfed marketers. In ascending order of importance they are

·         Animal welfare: Cattle are healthier and require little drug treatment when they are not confined, have constant access to pasture and eat a predominantly grass diet.

·         Environmental protection: The concentration of manure in and around feedlots can pollute air and water, whereas well-managed grazing systems can regenerate grasslands, build soil and protect watersheds.

·         Better taste and flavor: Grassfed cattle of the right breed, produced to high standards, result in beef that is tender, well-marbled and, in the opinion of many connoisseurs, better-tasting than grain-fed beef.

·         Human health: Grassfed beef is more healthful for people because of its significantly better omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio, higher concentration of conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs), higher levels of antioxidants and lower risk of E. coli infection and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

·         Climate change mitigation: Intensive grain farming and feedlot cattle production are major sources of greenhouse gases, whereas grasslands managed with regenerative grazing can sequester carbon and act as net carbon sinks, offsetting methane emitted by cattle.

On animal welfare, there is what might be called secondary support among likely and regular grassfed beef purchasers. Yes, those consumers care that pastured animals are “free-range,” although that phrase has been watered down in recent years — thanks, poultry producers — but cattle are not perceived as being raised in confinement conditions similar to pigs. Outdoor access, which is what’s really meant by “animal welfare” in the context of grassfed versus grain-fed beef, is simply not the main reason consumers might choose grassfed products.

On environmental protection, there is significant traction to be gained by grassfed ranchers and producers, but not necessarily for the reasons this report supposes. Unless your house happens to be directly downwind of a feedlot, air pollution from those operations is nowhere near the top of the list of consumer concerns about animal agriculture’s impact on the environment. Climate change? Absolutely. Wasteful cultivation of feed grains, wasteful in the sense of the land, water and energy devoted to growing corn and soybeans? You bet. But regenerating grasslands? Not only would most consumers be unclear about what that means, a majority would flat-out disagree.

Human health is always a marketable point of difference, and many aficionados of grassfed beef love to spout off about its nutritional advantages. That’s fine for the slice of the beef-buying sector, but the point of funding this study was to identify leverage to expand grassfed sales beyond its current little niche of loyal supporters.

Better flavor is a ubiquitous talking point, and I’ll admit that as a buyer of local grassfed beef myself — virtually the only beef I ever buy — I enjoy the “beefy” flavor and the “meatier” texture. However, those are acquired tastes, and less likely to drive trial, as marketers define the process of getting people to try a food product for the first time. After you’ve cooked and eaten grassfed beef, there is a good chance that you’ll appreciate some of its culinary attributes. But as a bumper sticker-type ad slogan? Not very effective.

Climate change, though, is the hook that is most impactful in terms of getting a larger swath of consumers to sample grassfed beef and then commit to paying the premium prices such products currently command.

For that reason, it’s incumbent on all beef producers to support grass-based production, because there is a positive “halo effect” in educating consumers that utilizing America’s rangelands to raise beef is not only a vital contribution to national food security, but an important way to drive carbon sequestration that could mitigate the harmful impact of greenhouse gases.

Chew on that, producers.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.