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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Sierra Magazine

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Food For Thought

Nothing to Beef About

"Organic" isn’t just for baby carrots

by Kathy Murfitt

Although I eat my vegetables with pleasure, I also enjoy meat once or twice a week. (I’m especially partial to a good porterhouse.) Trouble is, like many concerned carnivores, I object to the way most U.S. beef is raised. For example, nine out of ten cows are reared on growth hormones, which have been banned by the European Union because of links to cancer and early-onset puberty in humans. Massive amounts of antibiotics are routinely administered to livestock, which scientists suspect is one reason drug-resistant bacterial strains are emerging in humans (see "Playing Chicken," page 14). And the now-common practice of cooping up large numbers of animals in feedlots pollutes waterways with runoff from enormous amounts of manure.

Luckily, the conscientious meat eater now has a choice. Growing numbers of suppliers offer "natural" beef, defined loosely by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as "minimally processed and contain[ing] no artificial ingredients." While many producers shun hormones and antibiotics, the USDA standard for "natural" beef does not prohibit their use, so it’s up to you to determine the company’s definition, usually found on its Web site.

More exacting are the standards for organic beef, which is certified by the USDA to have been raised with no growth hormones, antibiotics, or prohibited medications; fed 100 percent organically grown feed; and given access to the outdoors and only minimal confinement.

The trouble with organic beef is finding it. While increasing numbers of supermarkets now stock organic chicken, organic beef is generally limited to specialty natural-food stores, a few fortunate farmers’ markets, and a handful of online outlets (easily located by searching for "beef" and "organic"). Then there’s the cost. Wisconsin organic dairy farmer Jim Goodwin charges $3 a pound at the local farmers’ market for his ground beef—about double conventional prices. At the high end, California’s organic-certified Prather Ranch offers a premium eight-ounce filet mignon online for (gulp) $24.50, excluding freight.

Why is organic beef so rare? The demand seems to be there: Sales of organic food in general are growing 20 to 25 percent annually, and 70 percent of shoppers in a 1999 Natural Marketing Institute survey said it was important for stores to stock antibiotic- and hormone-free meat. Yet organic beef accounts for a paltry one-tenth of 1 percent of production, partly because less than 2 percent of crops are grown organically. "Getting a high-energy ration of certified-organic corn or barley [involves] great expense," says Prather’s Mark Keller. Organic producers also lack the economies of scale enjoyed by large conventional agribusiness (which, after all, is part of what makes the former environmentally friendly). Goodwin’s operation, for example, is only 400 acres. Large slaughterhouses that now dominate the industry, says Goodwin, are geared to huge volumes and aren’t interested in small specialty lots.

Greg Gould, who raises organic Angus cattle in Montana, says his biggest problem is consumers’ expectation of cheap beef: "We’re located hundreds of miles from big cities, and the consumers we sell to locally probably can’t afford enough of a premium to keep an entire organic operation viable." Fancy cuts are easier for him to sell than hamburger, but even this niche market has proved fickle. Part of the problem is that most organic producers have to double as marketers, a task for which many lack the time, money, and expertise.

Still, it was just over a year ago that national standards were established for all organic foods, and the labeling of organic meat was not even provisionally allowed until 1999. Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, predicts organic beef will be a regular item on grocery-store shelves within five years. "Already, forty percent of all organic food is sold through mainstream supermarkets," he says. "And animal products are the fastest-growing component of organic food." The future is positively, er, bullish.

Kathy Murfitt writes about environmental and social issues from New Haven, Connecticut.

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