Unsavory practices in meat processing have captured the public spotlight in recent months. The Oscar-nominated documentary Food Inc. stunned audiences across the country with scenes depicting the dark recesses of the food-processing business. More recently, articles in Time, The New York Times and other media outlets have generated a firestorm of public discussion on meat-processing practices.
Meat production is a margin business. The profit margin on an animal that takes two years to raise is measured in pennies per pound. And that profit depends largely upon the processor’s ability to find an outlet for hides, bones and offal, as well as every cut of meat.
The conventional food system has steadily increased profit-margin pressure on producers and processors alike. Intensive grain feeding, artificial growth hormones and feed laced with low-level antibiotics were all introduced to reduce the cost per pound of beef by speeding a steer’s journey from birth to slaughter.
Nowhere is this pressure more intense than in ground-beef production. Ground beef is regularly generated from the trimmings that remain after whole muscle cuts are removed from the carcass. That’s not necessarily bad; the processing creates a quality product that would otherwise not be used. But today’s high-volume plants regularly mix meat from multiple animals, and then combine those trimmings with even cheaper meat from “spent dairy cows” (cattle that are too old or sick to produce milk) and other low-grade stock.
One analysis conducted by Colorado State University meat scientists a decade ago found that an average 4 ounce beef patty contains muscle or fat tissue from between 55 and 1,082 cattle.
Under pressure to keep prices low, federal regulators allow ground beef tainted with E.coli H171 to be “washed” in ammonia, and for beef testing positive for salmonella to be “reprocessed” and included in precooked meat products.
Customers are starting to say “enough.” So, too, are the ranchers and farmers who raise these animals.
But unfortunately, independent farmers and ranchers who raise their animals
without hormones and antibiotics, and with more grass than grain, too often flounder on a playing field that rewards high volume and marginal quality. Similarly, small processors across the country struggle to compete in a marketplace where price expectations are based upon the output of the 5,000-head-a-day plants.
Retailers can help drive changes to restore integrity in the meat-processing system. Regular product testing, changing allowable processing practices and enforcing honest label claims will all rebuild consumer confidence in natural meat and poultry products.
One more step is needed, and this is the tough one. We need to start a conversation with our customers regarding the true cost of raising high-quality, healthy, wholesome food. Retail prices must sufficiently reward everyone along the chain for producing that quality product.
In our country, we believe you get what you pay for. It’s time that we pay for—and receive—full value.
Dave Carter is principal of Crystal Springs Consulting and executive director of the National Bison Association. He maintains a small herd of buffalo in Colorado.