Monday, September 26, 2016

The Pros and Cons of the Grass-Fed Beef Boom

Americans eat less beef today than they did when Richard Nixon was president. But despite the decline in consumption that began in the mid-’70s, a particular type of beef is rapidly rising in popularity. According to Nielsen, sales of grass-fed beef rose by 40 percent in 2015 over 2014 numbers, compared with a 6.5 percent increase for conventional beef. Today, you can get grass-fed beef franks at Major League Baseball parks, grass-fed beef burgers at the drive-through, and packets of grass-fed ground beef at mega-grocers such as Walmart. For an alternative meat product to achieve such mainstream status in a relatively short period of time is, on some level, a success story. After all, grass-fed production systems are celebrated for raising animals outside of confinement and can have a reduced environmental footprint compared with grain-fed beef. Defining what grass-fed beef is can be a challenge, and what lies behind the rising sales is equally murky. Despite sales being up significantly in the past year, grass-fed beef accounted for less than 2 percent of the overall beef market, according to the USDA. Furthermore, the acceptance of grass-fed beef by American diners doesn’t mean that more American ranchers are moving away from conventional beef production. Overall beef imports to the U.S. have been trending downward for about a decade, but two of the largest foreign suppliers of U.S. beef are New Zealand and Australia—and meat cattle operations in both countries are based in large part on pasture, not feedlots. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, “Most imported beef is lower-valued, grass-fed beef destined for processing, primarily as ground beef.” That’s been the case for a while, but as the market changes, all it takes is some new branding, and the same ground beef that was sold as “ground beef” a few years ago can suddenly become a hip new product with a not-insignificant green halo. The hormone- and antibiotic-free grass-fed burger that Carl’s Jr. debuted in 2014—to much fanfare—is made with 100 percent Australian beef.

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