by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
Life, if nothing else, is a series of choices – often difficult ones. Take, for instance, a trip to the supermarket. While bright-colored signs point you to the sale items promising dollars off your food bill, other less-noticeable signs point to a product’s nutritional value or its safety from possible chemical contamination by pesticides but also a higher sticker pice. This can be a tough choice balancing frugality and safety. But after news reports of a food scandal out of Europe this weekend, one choice has been made a lot simpler – steer clear of conventional steer and go for the grass-fed beef.
Butchers and supermarkets across Sweden, France and the United Kingdom have had their ground beef supplies disrupted for the last few weeks because their beef products were found to contain horse meat. The discovery of the contaminated meat products has sent shockwaves through the big agriculture industries as a web of businesses are now blaming one another for both contaminating the meat and defrauding suppliers and retailers. Swedish food producer Findus and French supplier Comigel have been the focus of finger-pointing by both the public and by each other. Large-scale food retailers in Europe have begun pulling products containing ground beef, such as frozen lasagna, from shelves and lawsuits are stacking up against a labyrinth of food conglomerates like Findus and Comigel and other distributors, farms and stores. One UK and Irish food safety inspection reported that Findus lasagna was anywhere between 60% and 100% horse meat.
British Prime Minister James Cameron even took to Twitter to express his outrage over the horse meat scandal. “This is completely unacceptable — this isn’t about food safety but about proper food labeling and confidence in retailers.”
Confidence in retailers
While Europeans wonder if their meat is what it says it is and Americans wonder if the same kind of scandal could happen here (it can and it has), there are a growing number of consumers who never worry about where their meat comes from and what is in it – people who buy their meat from local, organic, grass-fed ranchers.
The grass-fed beef movement has exploded over that last decade for a variety of reasons. Consumers prefer the taste of natural meats, raised the nature intended without force feeding grains into the cows to fatten them up. Animal rights-types see the more ethical treatment of cows raised in the open and not in cramped feeding pens. Environmentalists point to the sustainable practice of grass-fed beef over grain-fed because of the impact raising heavily-fertilized crops like corn to feed cattle has had on the environment, particularly the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Whatever the reason, consumers, retailers and restaurants have started forking out the big bucks for the peace of mind that grass-fed meats bring.
“It’s expanded dramatically,” said Alan Williams in an interview with the St. Lois Post-Dispatch in Oct. of last year. Williams is a grass-fed beef producer and member of the Pasture Project, a group that works to get more conventional producers to switch to pasture-based systems. “In the late 1990s there were only 100 producers. Now there are more than 2,000. The market has grown from being $2 million to $3 million to over $2.5 billion in retail value.”
Despite its growth, the grass-fed cattle industry has not gone as mainstream as its conventional, grain-fed counterpart. Grass-fed beef is still hard to find in most major supermarket chains. Instead, ranchers offer memberships to people who can purchase large quantities of beef products at once. Most grass-fed ranch operations sell quarter cow or eight cow lots to members who often drive to the ranch and pick up the meat themselves or arrange for a small delivery truck to come drop it off. Restaurants find this system especially convenient because of the ability to offer fresh meat from local sources, giving them cred in the burgeoning “localvore” movement.
Most importantly, buying directly from a rancher that you can get to know personally gives you the peace of mind that the meat will be fresh, the animal was treated with dignity during its life, that the ground wasn’t poisoned to feed it and that it is indeed a cow and not a horse.