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Conventional Beef Industry Still in Denial About Health Benefits of Organic & Grass-Fed Beef

KANSAS CITY (Dow Jones)--Natural and organic beef is gaining in popularity among U.S. consumers even though such beef costs more and university meat scientists say there is little evidence to prove it is healthier or safer.

"The natural and organic beef market segment, though small, is growing at a much greater rate than total beef in the retail supermarket channel," according to information provided by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Retail sales of natural and organic beef may comprise only about 1% of the total beef volume and less than 2% of the total beef sales, but if the last few years are any indication, this segment will continue to grow at a fast pace, the NCBA said.

The NCBA's figures showed a 17.2% average growth rate in natural/organic beef sales last year versus 3.3% growth for total beef sales.

Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, said organic beef sales at retail in 2005 were valued at $49 million, up from $10 million in 2003.

Many U.S. cattle producers are shifting their operating procedures to meet that rising demand, and organic beef is getting easier for consumers to find. Some major supermarkets even have dedicated meat-case sections to that type of beef. It's a matter of giving customers what they want, trade sources said.

Consumers who purchase organic foods are paying extra because the strict U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements allow them to know how the animals are raised, Haumann said. Perceived environmental benefits also play a part in the reasons people buy organic or natural beef products.

"We don't make a lot of health claims," Haumann said. The association focuses on production processes and what it sees as a healthier lifestyle for the cattle that produce the beef.

On its Web site, the Organic Trade Association says "There is no conclusive evidence at this time to suggest that organically produced foods are more nutritious," but "organic foods and fiber are spared the application of toxic and persistent insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.

"Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases," the Organic Trade Association said. "In the long run, organic farming techniques provide a safer, more sustainable environment for everyone."

Proponents like Douglas Berger, retired cattle market analyst and broker in Dallas, say organic beef and other foods are "the wave of the future." Currently, production of these foods is slow in developing, so limited supply versus rising demand keeps the price up, but the niche market and higher prices give smaller grocers, packing plants and producers an opportunity to compete with major retailers, he said.

Major grocers tend to offer organic and natural products, especially beef, on a limited, test basis, Berger said. Only small portions of the meat case are set aside for natural and organic meats, unlike smaller chains or individual stores that are dedicated solely to these products.

Haumann said the association's surveys indicate more consumers say they would purchase more organic beef if it were available.

Berger said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over the years has focused on preservatives and other food additives that may be safe over the short-term but over the long term are harmful to general health and well-being. These additives often are used to prolong the shelf life of products, but in allowing them to be used, the FDA has fallen down on the job, he said.

Since the retail cost is nearly twice the price of non-organic product, consumers who purchase these products are more concerned about their health than they are about cost, Berger said. But the higher prices at all levels of production may attract more producers in coming years, siphoning away some of the non-organic production and narrowing the price gap, he said.

Consumers who purchase natural and organic products are paying for the "mystique," said Jack Salzsieder, president of K&S Financial & Marketing in Grimes, Iowa. "It's a figment of someone's imagination to sell stuff," he said. "It's supposed to be better for you."

Organic beef producers don't use growth hormones or use feeds that have been grown using pesticides or herbicides, and the cattle have had access to pastures, Salzsieder said. Organically raised beef also has never had antibiotics used in the animal's lifespan, he said.

But that doesn't mean antibiotics are never used, because sick animals are treated and then moved aside and sold into other markets, the Organic Trade Association said.

The philosophy behind organic beef is "to provide conditions that meet the health needs and natural behavior of the animal," the Organic Trade Association said. "Thus, organic livestock are given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture, and are fed 100% organic feed." No animal byproducts are fed to ruminants.

Organic producers are certified by USDA inspection. A producer must keep extensive records to prove production practices are organic, and the standards are posted on the USDA Web site.

The Organic Trade Association provides a link to a speech by Professor Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University, U.K., reporting findings that grass-fed organic cattle diets reduce the risk of E.coli contamination while grain-based conventional diets increase the risk.

However, other researchers say increased risk in feedlot cattle may have more to do with the closer association of livestock than to the food provided.  

The trade association notes on its Web site that mice fed organic diets appeared to live longer and be healthier. It also said organic foods have higher levels of certain health-inducing chemicals or vitamins and less of some that are harmful.

However, critics say there is little evidence to show that differences are large enough to matter.

Growth-promoting hormones are not allowed in the production of organic beef, according to the USDA. Many European countries officially ban their use, and it takes a USDA-approved export verification program to get traditional U.S. beef into this market.

Organic proponents, for instance, list growth-promoting hormones as something that is present in non-organic U.S. beef.

No one argues that large quantities of those hormones in the human diet could be detrimental. In fact, USDA regulations require that they be given time to wear off before an animal is slaughtered.

But the quantities left are miniscule, according to Gary Smith, professor of meat sciences at the Center for Red Meat Safety at Colorado State University, who recently compiled an analysis from other scientific sources for the NCBA.

His analysis showed that a three-ounce steak from a non-implanted animal had an average of 1.3 nanograms of estrogen, 0.3 nanograms of testosterone and 0.3 nanograms of progesterone. The same-size serving from an implanted animal had an average of 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, 0.6 nanograms of testosterone and 0.5 nanograms of progesterone.

For comparison, the average birth-control pill provides 35,000 nanograms of estrogen daily, Smith's data showed. In addition, a non-pregnant woman produces about 480,000 nanograms of estrogen, 240,000 nanograms of testosterone and 10.1 million nanograms of progesterone daily. The normal adult man produces 136,000 nanograms of estrogen, 6.4 million nanograms of testosterone and 410,000 nanograms of progesterone daily, the data showed.

"There's no (statistical) difference," Smith said.

There is no research to back up claims that organic and natural beef is safer, Smith said. Grass-fed beef may have few more healthy ingredients, but not enough to make any difference to the eater, he said.

Eliminating antibiotic drugs from food animal production may have little positive effect on resistant bacteria that threaten human health, according to a study by the Institute of Food Technologists in Chicago. Founded in 1939, the IFT is a non-profit international scientific society working in food science, technology and related professions in industry, academia and government on food issues.

In fact, removing antibiotics from feed abroad has resulted in more antibiotic use and more resistant bacteria in some cases according to the IFT in its latest Expert Report, Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications for the Food System, released Monday.

The growing popularity of organic and natural beef may have a lot to do with perception, "But boy, is it ever getting traction, no matter the price," Smith said.

 Source: Lester Aldrich; Dow Jones Newswires; 913-322-5179;