The Carnivore's Dilemma: Natural, Organic or Grassfed Beef?

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Written by Maria Gaura

Food

SANTA CRUZ (APRIL 2009) - So you’ve read Michael Pollan’s books, and vowed to buy as much locally-grown, organic food as your grocery budget allows. But the tradeoffs get complicated when it comes to buying meat.
Step up to almost any meat counter in Santa Cruz and prepare to be confronted with a consumer dilemma. There’s grassfed organic beef, most of it shipped in from Uruguay, a 9,000 mile, oil-fueled journey. Other brands of organic beef hail from the U.S. Midwest, and require somewhat less shipping. But those cattle spent the last three to six months of their lives on feedlots, which many activists consider contrary to the principles of organic farming.
You can find several brands of “natural” beef raised in California. But the term “natural” can legally apply to cattle raised on corn, hormones and antibiotics, and kept in confinement for a full year. You just want the best for your family and the environment – how do you separate the beef from the bull?

 

SETTING PRIORITIES
We checked with a half-dozen popular Santa Cruz grocers to get the facts on their organic and natural beef. The upshot is this: you can get local, or pasture-raised, or organic, but you are not going to get all three in the same package unless you ditch your current grocery store for the new Whole Foods Market.
Then you get to decide how important it is to shop in locally-owned stores -- another consumer dilemma. (But for that one, you’re on your own.)
In order to weight their options, consumers should consider whether their primary reason for buying non-conventional beef is to eliminate chemical residue from their food, to support local agriculture, to reduce their carbon footprint, or to boycott inhumane treatment of farm animals.
CARBON VS CONFINEMENT
Grassfed organic beef from Uruguay, for instance, may be a good choice if your goal is to buy chemical-free, humanely-raised beef. Certified grassfed beef cattle are never confined to feedlots, and generally get to run free. Certified organic beef promises to be free of chemical additives, including growth hormones, antibiotics, antimicrobials and beta-agonists, which is another category of growth-promoting drug frequently fed to cattle.
But the carbon costs of long-distance shipping are daunting, and U.S. farmers cannot compete with rock-bottom labor costs in Uruguay. Thanks to recent legislation, butchers are now required to label unprocessed meat with the country of origin.
BRAND NAMES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Marketing information supplied at the meat counter can be misleading. For instance, the term “natural” has almost no legal meaning, and can apply to beef from cattle plied with pharmaceuticals in a completely unnatural environment.
But some brands of “natural” beef are guaranteed drug-free, and vary from organic beef only because the cattle's feed was not certified organic. "Natural" beef can be drug free, or not, and may be kept in a feedlot anywhere from 3 months to a full year. These cattle can be fed diets high in stomach-damaging corn, or rations designed to be easily digested.
Until labeling laws impose a meaningful definition of “natural” or “humanely raised”, it is up to consumers to ask their butcher for the details. Most companies also post at least partial product information online.
Here is where the meat comes from at some local grocery stores.
SAFEWAY carries O Organics brand beef in addition to its Ranchers Reserve line of conventional beef. The O Organics beef is produced by Meyer Natural Beef, based in Colorado.
Safeway did not supply information about its meat. But according to Bill Carman, a meat industry executive who helped Safeway develop its organic beef program, Meyer processes feedlot-fattened organic beef raised mostly in the Midwest. According to Carman, Safeway decided against sourcing its beef from Uruguay in light of the County Of Origin Labeling law, (COOL), which became mandatory for meat in March 2009.
“They decided that when consumers found out that the organic beef had been shipped 9,000 miles, they would have some issues with that,”Carman said. “So (Safeway) went with domestic organic, even though it is much more expensive than the Uruguayan.”
Safeway’s Ranchers Reserve conventional beef, produced by the ominously-named Cargill Meat Solutions, Inc., is sourced from domestic feedlots where hormones are used as growth aids and antibiotics are added to the feed. Ranchers Reserve is cut from select, choice and “no-roll” beef, and the store makes no claims that the meat is “natural,” though it guarantees tenderness.
NEW LEAF COMMUNITY MARKETS in Santa Cruz offer Sommers Organic beef from Uruguay, as well as “Never, Ever” natural beef produced by Harris Ranch in California.
Sommers Organic, based in Illinois, owns cattle ranches in Argentina and Uruguay. Sommers cattle is free range and grassfed, except for occasional supplementary feeding, according to the company website. Chris Farotte, meat manager for the New Leaf stores in Santa Cruz, Capitola and Half Moon Bay, says the Sommers meat sells well because it is significantly less expensive than domestically-raised organic beef.
Extremely low labor costs in Uruguay, as well as the country’s vast rangelands, more than offset the cost of transportation to the U.S. The current minimum wage in Uruguay is $218 per month, with a six-day, 48-hour workweek, or approximately $1.14 per hour.
Sommers slaughters its cattle in the country of origin, but ships it to the U.S. for processing, which allows the COOL labels on the package to read “Product of the U.S., Australia and Uruguay”, according to a company spokeswoman.
New Leaf’s “Never, Ever” brand of natural beef is raised by Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County. Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is nearly meaningless. But Caudill said his company’s standards are high, and transparent, and could serve as a model for a future legal definition of the term.
The Harris Ranch beef sold by New Leaf is raised in California, and fattened in huge feedlots visible from I-5 as it runs through the Central Valley. The company’s "premium natural" beef cattle are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed. If the cattle become ill enough to require medical treatment, they are removed from the premium natural program, and sold as conventional meat.
The only difference between Harris Ranch premium natural beef and feedlot-raised organic beef is the Harris Ranch feed, which is not organically grown, Caudill said.
STAFF OF LIFE, an independent grocer on Santa Cruz’ Eastside, sells Sommers Organic Uruguayan beef, along with natural beef produced by Mannings, a meat packer located in Pico Rivera, near Los Angeles.
Mannings promises that its natural beef is hormone- and antibiotic-free for 360 days prior to slaughter, which is the amount of time the cattle spend in Mannings’ feedlot. “We take them in at about 1 year (of age), and we can only vouch for what happens once they’re under our control,” said Mannings spokesman Andy Broberg. “We use no hormones whatsoever and never use antibiotics in the feed.”
Broberg said he is not familiar with beta-agonists and anti-microbial drugs, and can't say for sure whether  they are given to the cattle or not.
SHOPPER'S CORNER, an independent grocer whose meat counter has a devoted following, does not carry organic meat, according to meat manager Paul Bagnasco. “Every once in awhile somebody comes in asking about organic or grassfed,” Bagnasco said. “But we’ve been here for 70 years, and not a lot of people ask about something they know we don’t have.”
Shoppers carries “natural” beef from Harris Ranch, graded either choice or prime, and a staff of butchers cuts the meat from carcasses. According to a Harris Ranch spokesman and the company website, the company’s “natural” beef is in a different category than the company’s “premium natural” beef sold by New Leaf Markets. Harris Ranch “natural” beef cattle are conventionally raised by independent ranchers before they are placed in the Harris Ranch feedlot.
The Harris Ranch "natural" beef cattle are not given hormones, or antibiotic-laced feed after they are placed in the company feedlot, allowing those chemicals to dissipate from their bodies during the fattening process. But Harris spokesman Caudill couldn't say whether the "natural" cattle were given beta-agonist growth agents or anti-microbial substances while on the feedlot. While these substances have much the same effects as growth hormones and antibiotics, they can legally be given to "hormone and antibiotic free" animals. 
COSTCO, the wholesale grocery club famous for jumbo-sized packaging, sells organic ground beef in addition to a selection of conventionally-raised beef. Costco organic ground beef is produced by Dakota Beef of South Dakota. Dakota organic beef is feedlot fattened by a cooperative of organic ranchers in the Midwest.
Costco has been selling 100,000 pounds of organic ground beef per week, and hopes to eventually offer the product in 300 of its 400 stores, according to Jeff Lyons, Costco’s Vice-President for fresh foods.
Surprisingly, WHOLE FOODS MARKET, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods, is the only market in Santa Cruz to offer organic, grassfed beef raised in California.
Whole Foods’ grassfed organic beef is from Panorama Grass-Fed Meats, based in Petaluma. Panorama’s cattle are mostly raised in Northern California, with some of the animals sourced from ranchers in Oregon and Washington. The cattle are free-range, and never placed in a feedlot.
Whole Foods also sells a “natural” brand, Country Natural Beef, which is based in Oregon and produced by a cooperative of more than 100 family ranches scattered from Colorado to Hawaii. Country Natural Beef producers do not use antibiotics, hormones, beta-agonists or anti-microbials, and the cattle are finished in feedlots for 3 months before slaughter.
However, Country Natural feeds very little corn in its feedlot, according to rancher and spokesman Doc Hatfield. Instead, the feed is largely a mix of potatoes and the nutritious chaff and germ removed from wheat in the production of white flour, which is easier for the cattle to digest than corn, Hatfield said.
COST IS AN ISSUE
Butchers at local independent markets say they carry imported organic beef because local shoppers will not pay the premium for local organic beef, especially during a recession. And while grassfed beef is considered environmentally superior, butchers say many organic consumers prefer the taste of fattier feedlot-raised beef.
But local grocers will be watching organic meat sales at Whole Foods to see if their assumptions about what Santa Cruz shoppers will buy holds true.
“Cost is more of an issue when it comes to organic,” said Joe Molina, owner of Staff of Life’s meat department. “There’s only so much people will pay, and then you end up throwing stuff away.”