Marketing that doesn’t concentrate on your product’s strengths and benefits, but instead criticizes and casts doubt and fear on your product’s competition, isn’t marketing. Call it fear mongering or just the trashy behavior your mama raised you to avoid but, either way, it’s not good business and it has no place in the business of food.
There is a post floating around social media — which if you’ve been around for any amount of time, you know I find social media disingenuous at best. The post is a photo of two different portions of ground beef, one from a grocery store and one from a cattle producer packaged by a small processor for sale directly to consumers.
In the post, the rancher implied the beef purchased from grocery stores is lower quality or not as safe as purchasing directly from the cattle producer. I’ll say it again for the people in the back: we have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world and with that comes the ability to purchase food produced in whatever way aligns with your values. If you wish to purchase your beef directly from a rancher, please do. There is a list of local producers who sell directly to consumers at COBeef.com/cooking/local-beef-directory, and any one of them would love to be your rancher — myself included.
If you don’t have access to a direct-to-consumer beef source or choose to purchase your beef at the grocery store because you can barely remember your reusable bags much less make an additional stop or find room for hundreds of pounds of beef at a time, it is the same product in terms of nutrition and safety. We sell beef directly to consumers and we sell cattle that eventually find their way to grocery stores. Both sources sell safe, nutritious beef. Hard stop. We just want you to choose beef.
Different producers also employ various production methods and market their beef in alignment with those methods. Some ranches are Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) certified, which means they have taken a course on best practices for cattle management and handling and agree to work within a standard set of guidelines and regulations across the beef industry. Natural, organic, grass-fed, grass-finished, and grain-finished are all other production methods you can cast a vote for with your grocery dollar if you wish. Natural, coincidentally, refers to the processing of the meat and the lack of added color, not how the animal was raised.
Hormone-free is a misnomer as all plants, animals and humans contain hormones, but some producers elect not to use added growth hormones in cattle on feed. Some feeders implant a tiny hormone implant about the size of a grain of rice in the ear to stimulate the gland that produces natural hormones in the animal’s body. Hormones used in beef production must be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the claim cattle were raised without added hormones doesn’t require third-party verification. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conducts random sampling of beef to check for residue, a segue into antibiotic use.
Antibiotic-free is also a murky label. At the time of harvest, cattle that have been treated with antibiotics must reach the end of the withdrawal period for those antibiotics. Meat is inspected and tested to ensure there are no antibiotic residue. You can certainly choose meat from animals not treated with antibiotics at some point in their lifespan. However, financially incentivizing cattle producers to withhold necessary and beneficial treatment from animals is in no way a best practice. It’s not dissimilar to telling an elite gymnast she can’t compete in the Olympics because she was treated for an ear infection when she was two, or withholding necessary treatment from that screaming two-year-old suffering from an ear infection because it may keep her from competing in the Olympics.
I thought I would be the next Mary Lou Retton, too, but here we are.
All beef sold in the U.S. is inspected. There is beef sold here raised in Canada or Mexico or Australia. Just as there are differences between a Michelin-star restaurant filet and a drive-thru taco, there are quality differences in meat and the cost of that meat. We do not import beef from China, which is a perennial mistruth, though China is a major importer of U.S. beef and their preference for cuts that are less popular in this country add a great deal of value to each carcass marketed. Love beef tongue? I don’t, but the demand for tongue in other countries can add $40 of value per head.
No matter which production method or label you choose with your dollar, just know it’s been below zero out here on the tundra and no ranchers have been freezing half to death for you to put ketchup on your steak.
Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.
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