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What’s in the Beef?

organic food

— Bruce Peterson/Gallery Stock

As a consumer, Carole Price is especially savvy. Having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, she knows that organic beef cows might eat organic corn, not grass. And she knows that grass-fed beef has health benefits over corn-fed beef. She buys only beef that is labeled both “organic” and “grass-fed.” But even Price didn’t realize that the same corn-versus-grass concern applied to dairy products as well. She bought organic dairy thinking that it came from pastured cows.

Down on the farm

To be fair, many beef and dairy producers still pasture their cows on actual grass. The new rules will, however, be felt more acutely by larger dairies and ranches. The reality is that the more cattle you have, the more acreage of pasture you need to fulfill the new requirement.

Dan Bansen, an Organic Valley farmer in Dayton, Ore., milks some 800 cows on his farm. In order to meet the requirement that 30 percent of his animals’ food come from grass, he needed more land than the 300 acres he used to graze them on. “We’re very fortunate,” he says. He was able to arrange a land trade with a neighbor to expand his acreage to 550—enough to pasture his cattle at a suitable density of three cows per acre, and still have ample fields left over for growing feed for the winter season, when weather will dictate that the cows come inside. “The transition should be very easy,” he says. He wonders, though, how even bigger organic dairies will fare.

If large producers are unable to maintain their organic certification under the new pasture rules, supplies of organic dairy, as well as beef, could dwindle—just as demand is rising. Horizon and Aurora say that they aren’t worried about the new rules, and that their production isn’t projected to change. For its part, Organic Valley has budgeted for a 2 percent decrease in production, says CEO George Siemon, who helped write the original organic standards, as well as the new set of rules.

But will prices for organic meats and dairy soar higher? At Whole Foods in Austin, the meat case displays an arrangement of fresh cuts of beef labeled variously as conventional, local, grass-fed and organic. The most expensive, the organic ground beef, costs around $7.99 per pound, as opposed to $4.99 for the least expensive, conventionally produced version. It’s impossible to foretell how these price tags will read in the future. But price is no object for Carole Price. She’ll always buy organic, she says. “Always. No matter what it costs.”

What benefits do meat and dairy products from grazed cattle offer?

Beth Goulart lives in Austin, Texas.

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