Miles removed from the nearest highway, shopping mall, and chain restaurant—or any restaurant at all—lie 40,000 acres of forest, meadows, and pastures, home to wildlife of all sorts and 1,400 head of Red Angus cattle. The herd, property of Meyer Company Ranch, roam free under the big sky of Montana, munching on grass and mineral supplements, moving leisurely from one field to the next to avoid over-grazing. Rounded up by real-life cowboys just one day a year for vaccines—not antibiotics, not hormones—the cattle have little reason to stress.
The land the cattle live on is given the utmost care and attention, with water sourced from a 40-acre reservoir that collects runoff from streams, snow, and rainfall to irrigate the forest, meadows, and farmland and sustain wildlife and crops. Nine thousand acres of forest—which provide shelter to the elk, bears, and mountain lions that call the ranch their home throughout the year—are protected from infestations of pine beetles and bug worms, while self-sustaining fields of alfalfa, barley, and winter wheat, planted by the cowboys and ranchers themselves, help supply year-round feed for the cattle.
Even on the one bad day of their lives (as Meyer corporate chef John Enright likes to call the day the Red Angus are shipped off to slaughter), measures are taken to guarantee the cattle are as calm as possible; they’re handled gently and aren’t transported for more than 24 hours at a time.
The result: a “naturally raised and handled” beef product that has received a Certified Humane distinction, the American Heart Association’s Heart Check designation, and the American Culinary Federation’s seal of approval.
Meyer Company Ranch—housed under Meyer Natural Foods umbrella, owner of beef brands like Meyer Natural Angus, Laura’s Lean Beef, and Dakota Beef—is just one of the many operations in the U.S. that raises cattle in a different fashion than the industrial beef production of yesteryear. It’s also proof that not only is the face of the beef industry shifting, but so, too, is the type of beef customers say they want to consume and feed to their families.
Despite rising costs and increasing supply pressures, the evolution of and interest in the beef industry illustrates that customer demand for beef is far from scarce.
“I cannot ever envision that beef is not a preferred center-of-plate experience for the consumers out there,” says Richard Gebhart, an Oklahoma rancher and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) federation division chairman.
“The surveys we have say Americans like beef, they enjoy it, it’s something that people take pride in serving,” he adds. “I just don’t see beef going away.”
As of 2012, the average U.S. consumer ate 52 pounds of beef per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), second in demand only to poultry. Though there has been a continual decline since consumption peaked in the 1970s, desire for beef is significant, with seemingly no end in sight.
“Even in an environment of rising prices, the demand continues to be strong and operators are finding ways to keep it on their menu,” says Trevor Amen, director of market intelligence for NCBA, an advocacy group for U.S. beef producers. “That in turn keeps the customers coming through their door.”
But as consumers grow more sophisticated and increasingly express the desire to know what they’re eating and where it’s coming from, there seems to be a widening circle of beef eaters turning to products that are all-natural, sustainable, and hormone- and antibiotic-free, much like the product in which Meyer specializes.
“The education of the next generation coming up and the knowledge that they desire is huge,” Meyer’s Enright says. “They need to have more information in their hands, and that falls down to where the animals are being raised and developed, in addition to [having] no hormones and no antibiotics.”
Better-burger chain Shake Shack is known around the industry and by consumers for serving all-natural beef raised without hormones and antibiotics. Director of purchasing Jeff Amoscato says the beef fits the brand’s “stand for something good” mentality.
“That’s doing the better thing for our food and our supply chain and sustainability,” he says.
Some experts say consumers’ desire for better-for-you, better-for-the-environment beef is fueled largely by the growing health movement, which is gaining steam with lower-calorie products, gluten-free items, and, now, food that’s naturally and sustainably raised.
“If you take a broad view of what healthy means or even use the word wholesome, it all sort of plays in together,” says Chris Anderson, director of marketing for Meyer Natural Foods. “For some, it’s about calories, it’s about sodium levels in foods, and things like that; but for others, it’s about, Was this animal raised in a natural way? Are there preservatives in this food? Is it adulterated? Is it pumped with solutions? People generally are trying to be more conscientious about how they choose their foods.”
Enright says the growing availability of natural beef products on the market—especially in establishments like gourmet and better-burger restaurants—is putting pressure on restaurants that don’t serve this type of protein. “They’re seeing a decline in sales volume because the consumer is in a position to make that choice,” he says. “They’re not just locked into one thing right now.”
With all the attention the segment has seen in recent years, Anderson says, he wouldn’t be surprised if natural, antibiotic-, and hormone-free beef products go from making up roughly 3 percent of total U.S. beef production today to a number as large as 10 percent in the near future—a lofty but realistic projection that may encourage additional brands and producers to join the movement.
But the NCBA’s Gebhart says consumers, media, and even experts inside the industry have failed to realize or acknowledge the changes that have been made on the “conventional,” mass-production side of the beef industry, as far as sustainability and animal handling and welfare go—changes that bring these products closer in line with what the all-natural and sustainable producers are selling.
A few years ago, the Beef Checkoff program—a producer-funded marketing and research program designed to increase consumer demand for beef—put together a Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review (CSR) highlighting the efforts, evolution, and advancements that have been made within the beef industry. The review not only laid out the “Cattlemen’s Statement of Principles”—including such values as preserving the environment, protecting livestock, providing quality food for consumers, and enhancing food safety—but it also found that each pound of beef produced conventionally uses 20 percent less feed, 30 percent less land, 14 percent less water, and 9 percent less fossil fuel energy today than it did in 1977.