To make sense of the current meat industry, it is helpful to look at the main market segments.
- USDA — All meat sold in the U.S. must follow U.S. Dept. of Agriculture regulations. All the beef on the market, from the cheapest to the most expensive, theoretically meets these requirements.
- Beef Mark of Quality — This is the beef industry’s “premiumization” program of branded beef products. The Cattlemen’s Beef Board funded the “Mark of Quality Commission” to create and administer this program. The criteria are that the product must be branded and must provide significant proof of strongly positive consumer sensory results. The meat portion must be 100 percent beef from a central USDA-inspected processing facility with a HACCP program, and be backed by a minimum $5 million product liability insurance. Packaging must include safe handling/cooking instructions, clear manufacturer contact information and nutrition labeling.
- Natural — This category is interesting from a marketing perspective due to its explosive growth and the parallel evolution of standards. But caveat emptor: The only restrictions the USDA imposes on use of the word natural is that it be “minimally processed,” with no artificial ingredients or preservatives. Although this leaves a lot open, a de facto definition evolved in which most products with this label are usually from cattle raised without added hormones or antibiotics and not fed animal by-products.
- Pasture/Grass Fed Meats — These are prized as being more flavorful, more nutritional and of higher food safety quality. According to Eatwild.com, a self-proclaimed clearinghouse for information about pasture-based farming, “Switching ruminants from their natural diet of grasses to grains also lowers the nutritional value of their meat and dairy products.” Compared with grass-fed meat, grain-fed meat contains more total fat, saturated fat and calories. It also has less vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. There are scientific data to back up these claims, although there is much disagreement about some of the research as well as the nutritional relevance of these differences.
- Organic Beef — Organic beef sales are growing by double digits — twice as fast as the rest of the organic industry. Projected compound annual growth rates for the next five years are in excess of 40 percent. Whereas the requirements for “natural” meats are not subject to federal government oversight, organic products are audited by federal government authorized certifiers to assure compliance with the National Organic Program rules. The rules are similar to those for the natural meats, with the addition of the strict audit requirement mentioned above and the requirement that organic animals be fed organic feed.
The Big Boutique
Niman Ranch, founded by Bill Niman and Orville Schell in the early 1970s, is one of the most prominent companies in the “natural” category. Starting from livestock raised exclusively on their original Bolinas ranch in Marin County, Calif., Niman Ranch now sources its livestock from many ranches raising livestock under contract according to their requirements.
Niman products are available in hundreds of restaurants and stores across the country. Most importantly, the company recently moved into the fast food arena as the provider of pork to the Chipotle Grill chain — partly owned by McDonalds Corp.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, was a major pioneer of promoting and purveying boutique meats to a large consumer base. The issue got a big boost with the onset of the BSE scare when the high-end, health-oriented supermarket chain widely publicized their requirements for all their meat suppliers, and informed customers how these requirements affected BSE infection probabilities. Many producers credit Whole Foods’ policies with the significant business increase following the BSE issue hitting the front pages.
Now that meats are on the table again, the diversity of product coming into the market is significant. And not all of these boutique products come from the same mind-set.
One example is Piedmontese “double-muscled” beef. Years ago, a cow in Piedmont, Italy, apparently incurred a mutation that reduced the effectiveness of a gene that slows muscle growth. After cross-breeding to enhance the mutation, the result was a subspecies of cow that grows very lean, very large and very fast. These animals are currently being raised in the U.S. to crossbreed with other cattle to create a faster growing cow. But if you’re worried that this is some sort of “Frankenmeat,” Blackwing Meats Inc., Antioch, Ill., is preparing to launch a line of Piedmontese meat that meets the strict standards necessary to be labeled organic.
Organically raised bison, after a few false starts in the 1980s, is now available through many vendors. It’s common enough to be available in most supermarkets and has even made its way into a few smaller lines of processed meals.
Two other alternative meats graduating from farm and field to the mainstream are venison and ostrich. Venison is available farm raised from several suppliers and is even “wild harvested” from the Broken Arrow Ranch in Texas. (Broken Arrow Ranch has been a supplier to restaurant outlets for decades.) Like bison, ostrich is another low-fat meat that failed to fly 20 years ago but is now experiencing a comeback.
All this variety is more evident now that the market for meats is in a very exciting growth and development phase.
John Ashby is General Manager - Ingredients, for California Natural Products, a pioneering manufacturer of rice ingredients for the food industry and focuses on the Nutritional, Nutraceutical, Functional and the Organic Foods industries.