In the frequent debates around what is the healthiest way to eat, and what’s best for the environment, the argument often boils down to eating meat versus not eating meat. But there is another avenue, and it has gained significant traction since the COVID-19 pandemic began: eating meat that’s raised sustainably and ethically.

Sales of all meat are up overall compared to last year, but not to the same degree as sustainable meat. According to research firm Nielsen, in the 20-week period ending July 18, sales of meat labeled “grass fed” rose nearly 43 percent over last year, and sales of meat raised using sustainable farming practices rose more than 62 percent.

Grass-fed meat and other sustainable options aren’t necessarily new. This class of animal products, long touted by Paleo eaters, have always had a reputation of being both healthier for your body but worse for your wallet. Yet during the pandemic, it seems more and more people are purchasing their meat with quality and sustainability in mind—and those patterns, industry experts say, might be here for good.

Why sustainable meat sales jumped

Initially, the spike in sales was part of the larger pandemic panic-buying trend, caused by fear of meat shortages and interruptions in the food supply. “When the lockdown happened, people were panic buying, really trying to get anything they could,” says Chris Carter, founder and CEO of Porter Road, which sells sustainable meat nationwide and operates a brick-and-mortar butcher shop in Nashville. “You could tell that people were loading up their freezers, because they were unsure of what to expect.”

Demand at meat subscription service ButcherBox (which sells grass-fed beef, organic, free-range chicken, and heritage breed pork) was so high at the beginning of the lockdown that the company opted to temporarily suspend new subscriptions to ensure that current customers could get what they wanted, notes founder and CEO Mike Salguero. (The company is now open to new subscribers again.)

Some of the supply issue worries were warranted, as beef and pork processing plants rapidly became hotspots for coronavirus infection outside of cities and forced temporary shutdowns. “COVID has exposed some of the ills of the current production model,” says Gabe Brown, owner of Brown’s Ranch, a sustainable ranch in North Dakota, and founder of Understanding Ag, a regenerative agriculture consulting firm. “Because of that, there was a shortage in the ability to get meat processed, which caused some empty shelves and freezers in the supermarkets, and that drove some consumers to find these products elsewhere.”

Though the extreme surge in interest for sustainable meat has died down, robust sales continue. “On our own ranch, we have seen a tremendous increase in sales, literally 500-plus percent over our previous year’s sales, with no advertising,” Brown says. This growth was true for Understanding Ag’s clients as well. “We have seen with our clients an increase in sales from 200 percent on the low end to 1,200 percent on the high end.”

Heather Marold Thomason, owner and founding butcher at Primal Supply Meats, had the same experience with her Pennsylvania-based business. After an initial spike with what she reports as 250 percent growth, retail sales (formerly at the company’s brick-and-mortar store, now online) currently are still up 130 percent and sign-ups for their Butcher’s Club subscription service are up 100 percent. Similarly, Kimberly Ratcliff, manager of Caney Creek Ranch and owner of Farm to Freezer Meat, reports that subscriptions have doubled.

beef kebabs on skewers
Photo: Stocksy / Cameron Whitman

Sustainable meat is here to stay

The trend toward more sustainable meat buying has several factors moving it forward, experts say. “The hierarchy of what [customers] care about is, first and foremost, themselves. So, a belief that the meat they’re eating is healthier,” Salguero says. “And then secondarily is animal welfare. Those are the two big ones. The third one is the environment. And then the fourth one is the farmer. Every time we’ve surveyed, that’s what’s come up. Customers are looking for a healthier alternative to conventionally raised meat.”

While meat (particularly red meat) remains controversial in the health world, many health experts agree that sustainable, grass-fed meat in particular tends to be more nutrient-rich than its conventionally-raised counterparts. Meat is also one of the best bioavailable sources of protein, iron, and B-vitamins. And the health appeal of sustainable meat has been intensified by the pandemic, Brown says. “Human health is directly dependent on what [people] consume,” he says. “So [customers are] actually looking for food that is higher in nutrient density, higher in phytochemical compounds, that can only be derived from eating food that’s grown in or on healthy soils.” Sustainable meat—raised with a focus on soil health and animal welfare—fits the bill.

New or increased interest in where our food comes from is another factor. “For some people, the disruption in food supply chains made them more aware—where do things come from, how are workers being treated, where is this meat being raised and where is it being processed?” Thomason says. “And it made them rethink, and decide that they actually want their food to come from a place where there’s a high level of ethics and standards.” To Thomason’s point, more than 36,000 workers have been infected with COVID-19, and as of August 19 (the most recent data available), an estimated 165 have died. The Trump Administration issued an executive order in April to keep meat processing plants open to avoid shortages, yet according to labor organizers, many workers lack basic personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing protocols, or adequate hazard pay. Those injustices are the cherry on top of the long, documented history of the conventionally-raised meat industry’s poor treatment of undocumented workers and extreme cruelty towards the animals it raises for food.

Climate change will also push sustainable agriculture further to the forefront out of necessity, says bestselling author and health consultant Robb Wolf, co-author of Sacred Cow, a new book about sustainable agriculture. “It’s well understood that the conventional row crop industrial food system is completely unsustainable,” he says. “If humanity is still here 500 years from now, we will be using regenerative food systems. And that’s because there is no way that the industrial food system, with its intensive use of fossil fuels, synthetic chemical fertilizers, the damage it does to the topsoil, the damage it does to our waterways, [can continue].” The survival of the industry—and the planet—depends on the meat industry shifting to a more sustainable model, he says.

The challenges ahead for making sustainable meat mainstream

Ideally, when demand for a product increases, more supply follows. Increased supply usually means there’s more for customers to choose from, and thanks to increased competition, prices drop. But with sustainable meat, those economic principles are complicated by the way the industry is currently set up. For one, farmers and purveyors who raise animals sustainably tend to use smaller processing facilities to slaughter and package the meat. But thanks to massive consolidation in the meat industry, USDA regulations on safety and quality have been standardized for facilities no matter the size. As a result, small processors running on very tight margins have struggled to stay open, and tremendous costs to meet the standards make it difficult to get new facilities off the ground—which bottlenecks the supply chain.

Price is also a challenge, because consumers have grown to expect meat to be inexpensive. “For the past 50 years, one thing that meat companies have done really well is produce cheap meat, and that’s what the American consumer has been looking for,” Salguero says. Government subsidies—an estimated $38 billion per year of taxpayer dollars—have helped the conventional meat industry keep prices low, as well as a reliance on cheaper immigrant labor and cruel yet hyper-efficient raising and slaughtering of animals. “That happened at the detriment of the animals, the environment, the farmer—everyone has gotten punished while the American consumer has gotten cheap meat. But we don’t believe that we can just say, ‘Hey, buy this stuff, it’s way more expensive.’ We have to be competitive.”

Raising and processing sustainable meat is more expensive and labor intensive than conventional, so prices most likely will always be at least somewhat higher without larger systemic changes. But in the meantime, Wolf believes that pointing out the health reasons for sustainable meat is one approach to winning consumers, as well as encouraging incremental changes rather than an all-or-nothing approach. “We really do need to work toward better meat. But at the same time, we can’t make perfection the antithesis of good enough for now,” Wolf says. “Folks will oftentimes say that it’s grass-fed meat or nothing, but that’s really injurious to low-income folks,” and possibly too high a bar for everyone.

For most of us, we can think of incorporating sustainable meat similarly to how we do with organic produce. Just as you wouldn’t give up vegetables because you can’t always get or afford organic, you can buy sustainable meat when it’s available, and look for ways to make it more convenient and affordable, such as a subscription service.

America’s love of meat (or meat-like products) likely won’t change any time soon. But with any luck—and the hard work of these sustainable meat brands—our relationship with meat may just start to change for the better.

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