Can trustworthy ground beef compete in the market?

This is a post that’s been begging to be written ever since the NY Times article came out.  In fact, I could write several posts, but I’ll restrain myself.

Ground beef is the protein backbone of the American diet.  For such a food staple, people are surprisingly ignorant about how it is processed.  Even Chowhound admitted surprise that the hamburger patties in the article were formed from a number of sources, including fat trim and scraps.  The ground beef you typically buy (unless you typically buy locally from a known source) is blended from multiple slaughter facilities, and is primarily the fat and scrap trim and/or cull cows (primarily dairy) and bulls.  The time between when the trim is cut and the beef is ground is typically several days.  Carcasses in most plants are not tested for contaminants (such as E coli), only the beef after its ground.   

As a youngster eating homegrown beef, I remember tasting the meatloaf mix before it went into the oven.  It would be insane to do so with typical commercially available ground beef.  Even then, I was taking some risks, but probably less than eating at a typical buffet line.

This year our ranch will sell between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of packaged beef, about 40% of that in the form of ground beef, hamburger patties or chili beef.  Each package is from a single animal, with a known health history and slaughter date (not to mention pedigree and name), ground and frozen on the day the carcass is cut.  We sell beef from pedigreed Angus stock, completely raised on pasture, no hormone implants or routine antibiotics, on a ranch dedicated to humane animal treatment and environmental stewardship.  Our retail price for a single pound is $5.00; for 10-packs it's $38.00.  We charge significantly less to wholesale outlets, restaurants and institutions.

Yet, we still struggle to find outlets for our beef.  The grocery chains typically are not anxious to deal with a local supplier for a single food item.  They also want to sell fresh product, delivered weekly, rather than the frozen beef we sell, which is harvested every 2-3 weeks.  Restaurants are struggling with their margins, and even at prices near-zero-profit margins for us, we still are more expensive than mass-market ground beef.  We can't compete with 60 cents/lb trimmings and $1.20/lb "recovered lean" from melted fat trim (main components of the Cargill burger in the article).

Which points out one of the conundrums of our food system.  Mass production, utilizing discarded resources (cull animals and trim), centralized processing and distribution all lower food prices.  Add on the convenience factor of dealing in large volumes, and beef like ours hardly stands a chance.  Given information and a choice, at equal prices, and equal availability., I like to think a majority of consumers would choose a product similar to our Wild Type Ranch beef.  I'm thankful to all my customers who are willing to go the extra mile (sometimes literally) to do so.


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