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Organic family farms benefit

June 3, 2003 Daily Miner & News (Kenora, Ontario)
At least one farm business stands to profit from the scare over mad-cow disease: grass-fed beef.

Colleen Biggs, who offers grass-fed beef from a ranch near Hannah, Alta., said she's been getting a lot of calls since bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was discovered in an Alberta cow last month.

Even before the scare, business at TK Ranch Natural Foods was increasing by 25 to 30 per cent annually, Biggs said. It's a niche market, but it's growing -- especially in Alberta, home to Canada's biggest cattle industry.

Biggs attributes the rising sales to concern about practices in industrial beef production, particularly the use of meat byproducts in cattle feed.

''We've certainly had a lot of interest,'' said Biggs. ''I think more and more people are becoming aware of what is going on in the industry.''

Biggs says many consumers are willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef, largely due to concern about animal byproducts in feed. Her products are priced 25 to 30 per cent higher than those generally found on supermarket shelves.

She said the mainstream industry uses animal byproducts because they're cheap and profit margins in the industry are so narrow.

The BSE outbreak in Britain was traced to the practice of feeding cattle byproducts back to cattle, which was then banned there and elsewhere.

But Canada and the United States, unlike Britain, still allow the use of cattle byproducts in feed for non-ruminant animals such as pigs and horses.

British scientists say they tried that approach, but kept getting new BSE cases because feed intended for pigs and horses wound up being eaten by cattle.

The British found that cross-contamination can occur between different production lines in feed mills, or as a result of carelessness on the part of farmers.

Ronnie Cummins, director the U.S. Organic Consumers Association, says consumers are increasingly skeptical of practices in the beef industry.

''No case of mad cow has ever been found in a cow raised on an organic farm,'' Cummins said.

''The major reason for that is that you can't feed slaughterhouse waste to an animal and call it organic.''

He said it is hypocritical for the United States to ban Canadian beef after a single case of mad cow disease, when it tests only a tiny fraction of its own cattle for the disease. Cummins maintains there must be cases of BSE in the United States but they haven't been detected and there is no interest in detecting them.

He predicted the NAFTA countries ''will continue to go merrily along with an only partial feed ban that's not enforced ... and no one wanting to look at this scary underside of industrial agriculture.''

Biggs said organic products are good news for the family farm, because the profit margins are higher than in the industrial meat industry. And Cummins sees old-fashioned grazing as the way of the future.

''From our standpoint it's very simple: the traditional way that meat was raised, which is nowadays called organic, is safe, its humane, it's good for family farms.''

''We can't have cheap industrial meat unless we want to have things like mad cow.''


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