Wall Street Journal

Natural and organic beef is gaining in popularity among U.S. consumers, even though such beef costs more and university meat scientists say there is little evidence to prove it is healthier or safer.

The philosophy behind organic beef is “to provide conditions that meet the health needs and natural behavior of the animal,” the Organic Trade Association says. “Thus, organic livestock are given access to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, grass and pasture, and are fed 100% organic feed.”

No animal byproducts are fed to organic cattle.

Retail sales of natural and organic beef may constitute only about 1% of total beef volume and less than 2% of total beef sales, but if the past few years are any indication, this segment will continue to grow at a fast pace, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said.

The group’s figures show a 17.2% average growth rate in natural- and organic-beef sales last year versus 3.3% growth for total beef sales.

Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, said organic-beef sales in 2005 were valued at $49 million retail, up from $10 million in 2003.

Many U.S. cattle producers are shifting their operating procedures to meet that rising demand, and organic beef is getting easier for consumers to find. Some major supermarkets have even dedicated meat-case sections to that type of beef.

Consumers who purchase organic food are paying extra for the knowledge of how the animals were raised, Ms. Haumann said. Perceived environmental benefits are also a reason some people buy natural- and organic-beef products.

“We don’t make a lot of health claims,” Ms. Haumann said. The association focuses on production processes and what it sees as a healthier lifestyle for the cattle that produce the beef.

On its Web site, the Organic Trade Association says “there is no conclusive evidence at this time to suggest that organically produced foods are more nutritious,” but “organic foods and fiber are spared the application of toxic and persistent insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.

“Many EPA-approved pesticides were registered long before extensive research linked these chemicals to cancer and other diseases,” the Organic Trade Association said, in reference to pesticides approved by the Environmental Protection Agency. “In the long run, organic-farming techniques provide a safer, more sustainable environment for everyone.”

Proponents like Douglas Berger, retired cattle-market analyst and broker in Dallas, say organic beef and other foods are “the wave of the future.” Production of these foods is slow in developing, so limited supply versus rising demand keeps the price up, but the niche market and higher prices give smaller grocers, packing plants and producers an opportunity to compete with major retailers, he said.

Major grocers tend to offer organic and natural products on a limited test basis, Mr. Berger said. Only small portions of the meat case are set aside for natural and organic meats, unlike smaller chains or individual stores that are dedicated solely to these products.

Mr. Berger said the Food and Drug Administration over the years has focused on preservatives and other food additives that may be safe over the short term but over the long term are harmful to general health and well-being. These additives often are used to prolong the shelf life of products, but in allowing them to be used, the FDA has fallen down on the job, he said.

Since the retail cost is nearly twice the price of nonorganic products, consumers who purchase these products are more concerned about their health than they are about cost, Mr. Berger said. But the higher prices may attract more producers in coming years, siphoning away some of the nonorganic production and narrowing the price gap, he said.

Consumers who purchase natural and organic products are paying for the “mystique,” said Jack Salzsieder, president of K&S Financial & Marketing in Grimes, Iowa.

Organic-beef producers don’t use growth hormones or use feeds that have been grown using pesticides or herbicides, and the cattle have had access to pastures, Mr. Salzsieder said. Organically raised beef also has never had antibiotics used in the animal’s life span, he said.

But that doesn’t mean antibiotics are never used. Sick animals are treated and then moved aside and sold into other markets, the Organic Trade Association said.

Organic producers are certified by Agriculture Department inspection. A producer must keep extensive records to prove production practices are organic, and the standards are posted on the USDA Web site.

The Organic Trade Association provides a link to a speech by Prof. Carlo Leifert of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom reporting findings that grass-fed organic cattle diets reduce the risk of E.coli contamination while grain-based conventional diets increase the risk.

However, other researchers say increased risk in feedlot cattle may have more to do with the closer association of livestock than to the food provided.

The trade association notes on its Web site that mice fed organic diets appeared to live longer and be healthier. It also said organic foods have higher levels of certain health-inducing chemicals or vitamins and less of some that are harmful.

However, critics say there is little evidence to show that differences are large enough to matter.

Growth-promoting hormones aren’t allowed in the production of organic beef, according to the USDA. Many European countries officially ban their use, and it takes a USDA-approved export verification program to get traditional U.S. beef into this market.

Organic proponents, for instance, list growth-promoting hormones as something that is present in nonorganic U.S. beef.

No one argues that large quantities of those hormones in the human diet could be detrimental. In fact, USDA regulations require that they be given time to wear off before an animal is slaughtered.

But the quantities left are minuscule, says Gary Smith, professor of meat sciences at the Center for Red Meat Safety at Colorado State University, who recently compiled an analysis from other scientific sources for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

His analysis showed that a three-ounce steak from an animal not given growth hormone had an average of 1.3 nanograms of estrogen, 0.3 nanograms of testosterone and 0.3 nanograms of progesterone. The same-size serving from an animal given the hormone had an average of 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, 0.6 nanograms of testosterone and 0.5 nanograms of progesterone.

For comparison, the average birth-control pill provides 35,000 nanograms of estrogen daily, Prof. Smith’s data showed. In addition, a non-pregnant woman produces about 480,000 nanograms of estrogen, 240,000 nanograms of testosterone and 10.1 million nanograms of progesterone daily. The normal adult man produces 136,000 nanograms of estrogen, 6.4 million nanograms of testosterone and 410,000 nanograms of progesterone daily, the data showed.

Compared to these larger numbers, Prof. Smith says there is no statistical difference between meat from an animal that received growth hormone and one that didn’t.

There is no research to back up claims that organic and natural beef is safer, Prof. Smith said. Grass-fed beef may have a few more healthy ingredients, but not enough to make any difference to the eater, he said.

And, in more news:

A Strong Demand for Organic Meat is Affecting World Supplies

Chris Harris, Editor
Bryan Salvage, Editorial Director
Meat News

Soaring demand for organic meats is causing global supply to tighten. A number of regions are reporting undersupply due to organic meat production not keeping pace with demand, according to Organic Monitor.

The most adversely affected region is North Americ a where supply has been unable to meet demand since the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2002. Organic meat products have been imported into the United States from Latin America, Australasia, and Canada. Imports are increasing at a fast rate with the volume of non-U.S. organic pork doubling in 2005 alone.

Western Europe is also experiencing acute supply shortages. Organic meat supply has not kept pace with demand with a number of countries reporting undersupply this year. The organic beef and pork segments are the most adversely affected with prices rising across Europe. Danish Crown, the largest producer of organic pork, has reported a 36 percent price rise compared to last year. Facing high demand, British retailers have started offering fixed contracts to organic meat producers to secure supply. Sainsbury’s and Tesco are giving meat producers contracts that guarantee fixed prices over five years. Although the initiatives are gaining acceptance by organic farmers, imports will continue to play an important role because of low domestic production levels. As in the United States, organic meats are imported from a number of countries into the United Kingdom.

Organic meat supply is also tightening in regions such as Latin America and Oceania. Countries such as Brazil and Australia have export-geared meat industries with organic meats playing an increasingly important role. Friboi — a leading Brazilian producer of organic beef — is expecting export sales to triple this year. High global demand is leading new organic meat producers to spring up in countries such as Chile and Nicaragua.

With demand for organic foods continuing to strengthen across the globe, organic meat supply shortages are expected to continue in the foreseeable future. Production will continue to lag behind demand in most countries because of the conversion period for organic products.

Organic Monitor said that some exporters will find it difficult to meet supply gaps because of the differences in organic standards between regions. For instance, USDA standards for organic meat products differ from those of the European Union. Trade liberalization may be removing tariff barriers. However, standards are becoming the major impediment to free trade in the global organic food industry.

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