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The demand for organic grass fed beef is growing by at least 20 percent a year in the United States. But while sustainable food advocates see this growth be a positive sign, the grass fed burger market may be growing so quickly that it’s undermining some of the original intention behind the shift. The reality is many of the grass fed meats available in large chain stores and restaurants are currently imported from overseas.
Most of the grass fed meat, especially ground beef for burgers, that is available for purchase from domestic chains comes from cows that were raised in Australia, New Zealand, or Uruguay. Unfortunately, many large American chains continue to import their grass fed beef from these places. If you're looking for quality American grass fed ground beef for burgers this summer, try our grass fed beef burgers. Feeling adventurous? Try our grass fed bison burger patties.
When national chain restaurants and food markets decide to go “natural,” more often than not they look abroad for the sake of meeting market demand. Meanwhile, small local farms and ranches in America are struggling to find a market for their grass fed products because so few domestic businesses are buying sustainable local grass fed beef. These small American farms are left to compete with the massive economy of scale coming from roughly $8 million in imported grass fed beef coming in from overseas.
As local demand for grass feed beef continues to grow, so does the need for transparency. Will Harris, a fourth-generation cattleman who runs White Oak Pastures farm in Bluffton, Georgia and president of the American Grassfed Association says, “It’s very difficult to read a label and tell what the protocol really was. The best way of knowing what you’re getting is to get to know the farmer or at least know something about the farm it came from. That’s hard enough to do in America and it’s even more difficult if it’s thousands of miles away.” This makes food safety a concern as well. Chipotle has acknowledged that its recent E.Coli outbreak might have come from Australian beef.
Many large chain restaurants and stores claim to source all-natural, no-hormone, and no-antibiotic beef, but when asked for more specifics, they don’t usually reveal much more. This can be an issue in when considering transparency. While the claims these companies may be true, it’s possible you don’t know the whole truth. How much of this beef do they actually sell? What are the proportions in relation to their purchases of other beef products? Technically, a company could claim to source local grass fed beef by placing a small order for the product once a year.
“The way sustainably produced meat is distributed now is problematic,” explains Chris Hunt, special advisor on food and agriculture for GRACE Communications Foundation. Over the course of a few decades, small-scale farmers have experienced the elimination of their distribution networks. We’re only now seeing these networks resurface. Further, loading grass fed beef onto a boat for 7,000-mile journey across an ocean seems pretty far from sustainable.