To the novice, it seems that meat from grass-fed animals should cost less than other meat since the grass-based farm doesn’t have the extra expense of grain, antibiotics, confinement buildings and all the other trappings of modern beef production.
THE TRUE COST
The first thing to consider is that the price one pays for honest grass-fed beef more accurately reflects the true cost of raising cattle for food, while “cheap” beef only appears to cost less. There are hidden and mostly unpaid costs involved with the production factory or feedlot meat. Over the last seventy years, reductionist science has given conventional farmers many tools to take the cost out of meat and poultry production. These tools include various performance-enhancing drugs, artificial feeding and ultra-confinement growing conditions. The industrial farmer is incredibly efficient, but the unintended consequences of this efficiency fall on the backs of consumers and the environment.
Examples of this efficiency are seen in the time required, the amount produced, and the cost of production. Grain-fed cattle may be slaughtered at sixteen months and weigh thirteen hundred pounds, while grass-fed cattle are typically slaughtered at twenty-three months and only weigh eleven hundred pounds. Grass-fed takes longer and weighs less.
Industrial chickens can be processed in five and a half weeks and weigh four to five pounds. They cost about one dollar per pound to produce. Pastured chickens are typically slaughtered at twelve weeks and weigh three to four pounds. Production cost for a pastured chicken can cost up to four dollars per pound.
The feedlots are basically a factory production line: young cattle being prodded into the front door, then a few months later, they are prodded out the back door onto trucks headed to massive slaughter plants. Throughout their stay, cheap GMO grain is shoveled to them along with other so-called food such as bakery waste, rejects from candy factories and waste from the government-subsidized and protected ethanol plants. Along with the artificial feed, they are given growth hormones, appetite-stimulating chemicals and sub-therapeutic antibiotics.
Towards the end of the artificial feeding regimen, the cattle are so toxic from eating all the wrong feeds and from ingesting drugs that they would likely die if kept much longer. Meanwhile their manure, which in the right circumstances can serve as a valuable, natural fertilizer, is nothing more than a hazardous, toxic waste that is impossible to dispose of in an environmentally sound manner.
Consumers who have gained an appreciation for animal welfare and regenerative farming practices ask farmers to forgo the use of the tools that reductionist science provides to lower product cost. The result is increased production costs for the farmer.
Virtually all factory or feedlot beef is corporate-owned and the scale is enormous. The difference in the cost of labor is huge. On a grass-based farm, a herd of seven hundred cows requires the care of three cowboys. Yet in a CAFO feedlot, three employees can handle fifty thousand head of cattle.
On corporate farms, profit margins can be razor-thin but the corporate owners can still reap huge dividends. They are also likely to be eligible for gigantic tax breaks.
Meat processing in factories uses huge machines. Machines need few people, and they have no need whatsoever for community or small towns. They thrive on recently-arrived immigrants, who will work for practically nothing, can be warehoused in dormitories, and who they burn through very quickly.
It is all about scale. We all know what Henry Ford did to the cost of making an automobile. All commodity beef slaughter plants are of such a vast scale that to witness them in action is a ghastly unforgettable sight. In these mammoth, noisy, and frightening facilities an entire beef animal from walking in alive to boxes of frozen meat headed for trucks can be processed. These huge plants do this utilizing only two man hours of labor per steer, versus the small plant which will expend over eight man hours per beef animal!
The little time needed in the feedlot model is due to automation, relaxed rules about how employees are treated, and other ways to cut corners. Problems such as repetitive task injuries, underpaid immigrant workers, excessive waste pollution, and the lack of humane conditions for man and beast are not factored into “cheap food.”
The hidden costs of cheap food from massive producers includes the huge annual erosion and loss of topsoil from production of grain; the pollution of the air, water and soil; and the loss of farm families, farm communities, and small towns throughout our country. This loss of the ability to make a simple and honest living on the farm was what inspired Wendell Berry to pen the essay “What Are People For?”
Meanwhile, virtually all grass-fed operators are small family businesses. These tiny enterprises are unable to benefit from the efficiency of scale. Often, all family members are involved in taking care of the cattle, the land and the survival of the farm. They cannot survive without a steady farm income, one that cannot come from only a few head of properly-raised cattle. When profitable, these small farms have a positive effect on farm communities and small towns.
Another factor keeping the price of commercial beef lower than grass-fed is the fact that it has been made into what is called a “commodity.” Once any product, in this case a farm product, has been made into a commodity, the producer becomes a “price taker” instead of a “price maker.” The difference between a commodity meat and a niche market meat is that in this case, anyone and everyone can produce “grass-fed beef,” and no one but Farmer John could make “Farmer John’s grass-fed beef.” We can pick up a newspaper or listen to the radio to find out the commodity price for today, but only John Smith can dictate the price for Farmer John’s grass-fed beef. This is called the free market. It is then up to Farmer John to tell his story and educate his customers about why this beef is the most desirable option and worth the extra price.
When a product is commoditized, the producers will receive only a dictated profit margin. If that price is below what it costs to create the product, the producer can either take a loss (until the money runs out) or cut corners to make a cheaper product. We have seen both.
Even worse, the government has been lobbied to provide what are basically “welfare checks” to farmers who produce commodity grain. Using taxpayer dollars, farmers receive a premium over the commodity price. They are paid if there is crop failure or some other disaster. They are frequently paid not to farm if there are extreme surpluses in grain. This government-sponsored “free” grain goes to the feedlots in order to produce cheap beef.
Since contamination with pathogenic bacteria is low to non-existent in meat from grass-fed animals, and since pathogens are almost ubiquitous in feedlot meat, the health of the people who eat it becomes another issue that affects true cost. No one wants to add in the medical costs of treating all the cases of factory-food-induced food poisoning, with annual illnesses requiring hospitalization running into the tens of thousands of dollars, and food-related deaths into the thousands annually.
Furthermore, all the chemicals that the animals get end up in the meat, specifically in the fat. Antibiotic resistance is real, and the routine antibiotics given to feedlot beef are contributing to the problem.
Lastly, much of what affects the prices that consumers pay occurs at the retail end of the value chain. Huge retail grocery stores and supermarkets truck in their beef in fifty-three-foot reefer trucks and create enormous displays of commodity beef. They like to create the illusion of being the least expensive option in town, so that many common products, the ones consumers are most likely to compare, are promoted as “loss leaders.” They cut them down to a tiny profit all the while marking up the prices of other goods that people rarely cost-compare.
Additionally, we have seen meat managers adding an almost double mark-up on grass-fed meats on the basis that they find them more difficult to market and they require more time explaining how to cook them. Since the meat-cutters have been trained on feedlot beef, they prefer selling it and frequently discourage the customer from purchasing grass-fed. This leads, in many cases, to more unsold and expired products being destroyed.
THE REAL QUESTION
All in all, producers of meat from grass-fed animals believe that it is critical to reframe the question. Once one is exposed to the reality of the meat industry, one no longer needs to ask why grass-fed meat is more expensive. It’s actually not. The real question is: Why is it that factory feedlot meat appears to be so cheap? A little bit of investigation clearly shows that, in general, cheap food is the most expensive food of all.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2016.