Uruguay is one of the best source for grass-fed organic beef - Forbes
Demand for grass-fed beef has grown at an annual rate of 25-30 percent for the past decade at the same time that per capita beef consumption for traditional beef products continues to decline. A recent study determined that grass-fed beef demand in several major US metropolitan markets is 3 to 6 percent of the total beef market share.
There are several drivers for this growth. One is the natural health benefits - grass-fed beef has a lower fat content and fewer calories – 65% less fat and 50% fewer calories according to Mark Spagnola, Group Manager of Meat Merchandising for Wegmans Food Markets.
Wegmans has been ahead of the curve when it comes to selling grass-fed beef. They began selling it in 2009. Today it is sold as part of Wegmans’ Food You Feel Good About Organic Beef program. Wegmans actively markets organic grass-fed beef and works diligently to train their front line store employees so that they can provide knowledge-based service to their customers on the key attributes and benefits.
In the U.S, conventional cattle are typically finished on corn in feed lots for their last 120 to 150 days prior to harvest and are typically administered antibiotics. Antibiotics are used because the cattle are confined in close quarters where illness might spread quickly otherwise. The use of antibiotics is a key concern for many customers; “it is one of the most frequently asked questions about our meat products,” said Mr. Spagnola. Grass-fed cattle sourced for Wegmans are raised on open pastures and are never administered antibiotics or growth promotants during their lifetime.
But Mr. Spagnola explained that there are solid reasons for the traditional beef supply chain which uses feed lots. The feed lots allow for a consistent feed regiment that allows cattle to put weight on more efficiently and increases the likelihood of marbling in the meat – something that signals a tastier cut of meat and most Americans prefer. In contrast, as Mr. Spagnola explained, “Grass-fed beef is not for everyone. Many US consumers have gotten accustomed to higher marbling, fuller flavor that traditional grain- finished beef typically delivers.”
To address the taste issue, Wegmans meat merchandisers have searched the world for the best tasting organic grass-fed beef and found it in the South American country of Uruguay. The cattle are raised on small family ranches by gauchos using traditional methods of pasture-based farming. Uruguay has both endless green pastures and an extremely temperate climate; there is no snow, grass is present all year long. This means cattle are never fed on straw or hay in the winter months, which tends to degrade taste.
I also talked with Mr. Spagnola about Wegmans’ Organic grass-fed beef supply chain. According to Mr. Spagnola, “We have a fairly mature program. We put our own brand name on this beef. You have to believe in your partners to do that.” Wegmans relies on relatively few suppliers and nurtures close and long relationships with these suppliers. Because of this, they pick these suppliers carefully. In Wegmans case a key sourcing partner is Verde Farms, a company they have been working with since the beginning of this program.
Verde Farms, which specializes in grass-fed beef, sources the majority of its beef from Uruguay.
“You can’t claim that you are engaged in sustainable sourcing” Mr. Spagnola said, “if you have not visited the farms, audited the meat processing plants, looked at their 3rd party certifications, and assured yourself that these plants have highest standards in place in regards to animal welfare, quality and food safety.” At Wegmans, the grass-fed beef is processed in USDA approved countries and plants. The USDA approves countries and plants on an annual basis. The local regulatory authority oversees production on a daily basis and is considered “equivalent” to USDA standards. Further, Wegmans only wants meat from production facilities that have been certified as USDA Organic.
Dana Ehrlich, the CEO of Verde Farms, singles out Wegmans as being at the “forefront of quality assurance at the plant level.”
While Verde Farms sources grass-fed beef from Australia, North America, and New Zealand, Mr. Ehrlich agrees that there are several reasons Uruguay is one of the best source for grass-fed organic beef. The mild climate not only means that cattle are not fed straw during the winter, it means that Hereford and Angus breeds can be raised. Breeds of cattle that can live in tropical climates just don’t taste as good.
In Uruguay, beef is a very important contributor to their GDP. The country has sought to increase their natural climate-based advantages with strict legislation. Traceability is mandatory; cattle are RFID tagged at birth and tracked throughout their life, even through changes in ownership. The government strictly enforces this legislation. The traceability is so good, that “in some pilots,” according to Mr. Ehrlich, “upscale restaurants have even gone so far as to tell customers which farms the beef came from.” The government also prohibits growth hormones.
Finally, Verde Farms seeks to maximize the organic credentials of the beef they source. Verde certifies the ranches they source from as being organic. This means while these ranches can use phosphates on land to fertilize grass, they are not allowed to use oil-based fertilizers. “It takes a farmer three years to convert to organic soil,” according to Mr. Ehrlich. An organic certification also requires that no antibiotics are used in raising the cattle they purchase. “If cattle get sick, they can be treated with antibiotics, but they then can’t be sold as organic.”
For a while, following the beef adulteration scandals, I stopped eating ground beef. My wife convinced me it was safe to eat grass-fed ground beef, which in my opinion also tastes better. It turns out, that if this ground beef is bought from a grocery chain with high sourcing standards, like Wegmans, there is also very good traceability in place.