NOBULL: Knowing Your Competition in Beef — It says southern raised, but do they mean as far south as Australia, Uruguay or Brazil?

Knowing Your Competition

By Kathy Voth / October 21, 2013 / 3 Comments

It says southern raised, but do they mean as far south as Australia, Uruguay or Brazil?

A recent report on NPR noted that grass fed beef is becoming more and more popular. In fact, George Seimon, a founder of Organic Valley, says that though the push for grass-fed beef started with activists who wanted to challenge an industry dominated by factory-scale feedlots, the demand for the product has now gone mainstream. That should be good news. But the supplier response wasn’t exactly what activists may have expected. It turns out a lot of the grass-fed beef found in mainstream markets is coming from half a world away. And, in the process of selling this beef to American consumers, one marketer in particular, Sprouts, is telling a story that throws American beef under the bus.

So who is buying all this imported beef? Though Organic Valley is largely known as a supporter of local farmers, according to the NPR report, all of their grass-fed beef comes from Australia. D’Artagnan, an online purveyor of gourmet meats, gets it’s grass-fed beef from Australia, and what it calls “pasture raised beef” from Oregon. (To D’Artagnan and their consumers, pasture raised means that the animals grew up on the range and were then grain finished.) Whole Foods imports only about 3 percent of their grass-fed supply, with the rest coming from regional and local markets.

And why are they buying imported beef? Price is probably the most important factor. Patricia Whisnant and her husband own and operate Rain Crow Ranch, and they supply grass fed beef to Whole Foods. Patricia told NPR that they were once approached by a meat broker interested in supplying grass fed beef to supermarkets. The deal fell through when the broker chose to purchase ground beef from Australia at 75 cents to a dollar less per pound. Australian, Uruguayan, and Brazilian ranchers all have grass year round, making it easier and less expensive to produce grass-fed beef.

But where does this leave consumers who were hoping to impact the way beef is raised in the United States – to move it from feedlots to pastures and ranges? They successfully created a demand for a different/better product. But instead of creating change, suppliers met the demand by importing the product. Are the suppliers correct when they say they have to import grass-fed beef because not enough is being produced here in the U.S.? Or is it because the suppliers or their customers aren’t willing to pay for the product to be produced locally?

We’d like to hear from you. If you’re raising grass-fed beef, do you have a good market for it? What is your experience in trying to reach the mainstream market? Is it a matter of supply or price that most affects where you sell your product? As I looked into this topic, I found some interesting things about how importers market their product. Next week we’ll share what Sprouts market says about how Uruguayan beef beats American beef for taste and environmentally friendliness.

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