Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
The local meat industry, as much as any other food industry in the country, has to satisfy the needs of a diverse consumer market, and it has to do this in a responsible manner. Financially stable, mostly urban and environmentally aware consumers are increasingly insisting on proven measures taken by the agricultural community to diminish its carbon footprint, to supply the retail with food from traceable sources, and to guarantee the quality of life of livestock until the point of slaughter.
The elite consumer is literally dictating what the producer should produce, simply because this consumer pays more than the masses who struggle to afford protein (although the demand for and consumption of protein among developing nations, has grown considerably over the past few years). The retail, understandably, is fighting to meet the demands of its elite market segment, as it offers higher margins.
At the opposite end of the market, the quality of meat is constantly deteriorating, due to the fact that government regulations are not being enforced and the lower-end consumer is more focussed on price than quality. This segment is already priced out of the fresh meat market and is dependent on secondary cuts and off-cuts, grace C carcasses and processed meat.
It is within this context that role players within the red meat industry is slowly but surely taking a greater interest in grass-fed meat. It is a source of protein which can meet various consumer demands. And with this in mind, let’s have a look at the current role and place of grass-fed beef in the red meat industry.
What is grass-fed meat?
Quite simply, it is meat produced from animals that are marketed off the veld and not the feedlot. A quick comparison between the environmental impact of grass-fed versus feedlot meat, reveals the following:
- Calves are taken off the veld at weaning age and taken to feedlots where they are fed a grain-based diet and receive growth stimulants.
- The grain production process includes the manufacturing of fertiliser, the use of agricultural machinery for the preparation of fields, and the cultivation of millions of hectares of land. It clearly has a major impact on the environment.
- Chemicals are used to control weeds and grains are transported by road or rail to where it is mixed into a ration for livestock. Still a major environmental impact.
- At the feedlots itself, large numbers of animals are kept in relatively small spaces, producing enormous amounts of manure and urine.
- However, this system produces more meat in a short time than a grass-fed system can.
- Various types of medication has to be administered to the animals.
(At this point, please note that this article does not attempt to identify these management practices as negative. The feedlot industry makes the production of large amounts of quality meat possible.)
- Animals are produced on veld. Veld doesn’t need much more than sunlight and water for production.
- Organic material is trampled into the soil, keeping CO₂ in the soil and out of the air.
- No transportation of rations is needed – the grass is produced where it is needed.
- Although cattle on veld produce more methane gas, grass-fed production systems are responsible for less total greenhouse gases.
- Grass-fed beef takes much longer to produce, making the unit costs substantially higher.
In a comparison of the two production systems, Time magazine (25 January 2010) pointed out that in the USA a kilogram of grass-fed beef is much more expensive to produce than a kilogram of feedlot beef, and that the carbon footprint is twice as high. But this is only part of the story.
The production cost of grass-fed beef is forced up by capital expenses and interest on capital, as more land is necessary and the production process takes much longer. Yet these criteria are not necessarily applicable to South African extensive models. In addition, the carbon produced in a grass-fed system is trampled into the ground, making its effect on the environment less harsh than in the case of grain-fed animals.
The consumer market
As is proper in a free market system, it is the consumer who manages the process. From the urban consumer’s viewpoint, two things are of particular importance. The first is that livestock should be free to roam the farm. The second is that no grains, stimulants and medication should be used to expedite the animal’s market-readiness.
As both these elements are important to the modern consumer, there is a strong argument to be made that this niche markte should be served with the expectation of a premium on the product. But in the South African context, things are not that simple.
The current meat grading system, says Paul Lubout, head of the Brangus Cattle Breeders’ Society, simply doesn’t make provision for grass-fed meat, because A-grade meat must be younger than twelve months. South Africa is one of a few countries in the world where this is the case. In most other countries, grade A meat is graded as meat younger than 24 months. In other words, our grading system is aimed at the feedlot industry.
But, he says, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Various Brangus producers have entered into an agreement with Pick n Pay to deliver grass-fed beef that meet certain criteria, based on which these producers will then receive a premium per kilogram. Besides the premium which will be negotiated with each individual producer, Pick n Pay also undertakes to pay A-grade prices for both AB- and B-grade meat.
Sheep breeds also benefit from programmes such as these. One example is ‘Karoo lamb’ which is very popular among consumers.
The basis of the delivery of grass-fed meat to Pick n Pay, is the traceability and certification of the process by an independent party. In this case Samic, the South African Meat Industry Company, will do the job. Trying to promote ‘grass-fed meat’ without it being managed and controlled, would serve no purpose.
The initiative to promote grass-fed meat as a niche market, is currently driven by supermarkets in stead of the meat industry, says Lubout. Ian Crook of Pick n Pay confirms that they are indeed currently entering into supply agreements with individual producers.
“We have contract producers,” he explains, “who are producing red meat for us under the banner of our ‘Country Reared’ programme. This programme is based on very simple principles, namely that antibiotics may only be used if truly necessary, in which case there is a prescribed withdrawal period. We also ban any form of growth stimulants, we don’t allow any animal byproducts in the feed ration, and animals must come from the farm of the contract producer in question. In addition, we pay farmers the same price for grade A2 to B2.”
Although Shoprite Checkers doesn’t have a grass-fed cattle brand, they do market mutton and lamb under the name ‘Certified Natural Lamb’. According to their website, www.naturalmeat.co.za, their lamb is produced at their ultra modern Groblershoop meat facility, which meets all of the European Union’s food safety requirements and the requirements of health-conscious countries across the world.
All health aspects, including the prevention of residues and environmental pollution, are closely monitored by independent and highly qualified inspectors, thus ensuring that the retailer can guarantee the safety and integrity of its products.
According to Dirk Diemont of Shoprite Checkers, they pay their suppliers a premium which is not influenced by the grading of the meat and which is based on supply and demand. The protocol for the certification of their meat is confidential.
Besides the two retailers mentioned here, there are a number of other groups, individual producers and butcheries that make similar claims. Unfortunately the uncoordinated and unregulated nature of these claims leaves room for abuse and misapplication. The drive towards grass-fed meat could fail if someone doesn’t ensure that the term ‘grass-fed’ doesn’t become a mere superficial attempt at marketing.
It is also important that the authorities start making a clear distinction between ‘grass-fed’ and ‘organic’ – this also applies to many other food industries in South Africa, including dairy. Grass-fed meat, for example, can be organic, but isn’t necessarily organic. Clear guidelines are needed.
It has been scientifically proven that grass-fed meat is healthier than feedlot meat, as the lower energy diet results in fewer fat deposits. Both the cholesterol and polyunsaturated fat levels are lower. The fat will have a more yellow colour and will not be as white as the fat of grain-fed animals. Whether the consumer will be satisfied with yellow fat when purchasing his steak, is a yet untested question. However, when grass-fed meat is sold as stewing meat or cuts other than steak, there shouldn’t be any distinction.
According to Thys Ungerer, a Nguni stud breeder near the Free State town of Vrede, it is wrong to market grass-fed meat as only good for stewing: “The meat of thirty-month-old oxen (grade AB) is excellent quality and if the carcass is correctly handled at the abattoir and correctly ripened, the steak will as soft and tasty as grade A meat any time. In fact, it is much more flavoursome than grade A meat. It is truly excellent quality meat!”
Ungerer mentions a few of the healthy characteristics of grass-fed meat:
- Total fat: Grass-fed product has a lower total fat content than feedlot product – about the same as skinless chicken or venison. Moderate intake of lean beef can lower cholesterol and LDL levels.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These ‘good’ fatty acids are two to six times higher in grass-fed meat than in feedlot meat. It lessens the risk of heart disease and is important for brain function.
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA): The meat and milk of grass-fed animals are a rich source of CLA, which has been shown to protect against cancer in laboratory animals.
- Vitamin A (yellow fat). Vitamin A is essential for a number of bodily functions and is found in grass-fed meat. It is responsible for the yellow colour in the grass-fed product. Ironically, the meat trade tends to discriminate against yellow fat.
- Vitamin E: This vitamin protects against cancer, heart disease and ageing. It also plays a role in fertility. Vitamin E levels is four times higher in grass-fed meat than in grain-fed meat.
- Stearine acid: This ‘good fat’ is also present in grass-fed meat in good quantities. – Izak Hofmeyr, AgriOrbit