Commentary: A beef with supermarkets

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It’s not exactly a breaking news bulletin to tout the fact that increasing numbers of consumers are opting to buy beef direct from ranchers and online marketers offering alternative to picking through the mass of pre-packaged cuts stacked in the traditional supermarket meat case.

What’s interesting, though, are the reasons why.

Although such buyers represent but a small fraction of the beef-consuming public—and a ridiculously small percentage of total sales revenue for fresh beef— I believe the mindset such buyers display is instructive as to future consumer trends, and one worth analyzing.

A recent story about the trend of sourcing beef purchases directly with producers appeared this week in the Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune. Titled, “Wyomingites are buying beef from ranchers” (never knew what to call folks from The Cowboy State), the article quotes a couple of folks who aren’t exactly disinterested observers. One was Charlie Scott, a state legislator who also happens to be a rancher and who happens to sell as many as 50 cattle direct to consumers each year.

Gee, wonder if he thinks direct sales are a good idea?

The other main source was a Casper resident named Stacy Johnson, who told the newspaper that she hasn’t bought beef from a grocery store in six years. Why? Because her sister is one of the owners of the Simmons Ranch. Thus, she “prefers to buy her beef from her kin rather than local retailers.”

It makes sense that Scott and Johnson are big supporters of direct-to-consumer sales, but even a cursory news search shows that the trend is happening in plenty of places other than Wyoming. I’ll be honest: I buy the beef our family eats direct form a local farmer/rancher here in western Washington, one who raises Highland-cross cattle on several hundred acres of pasture. He’s no big-time producer, but the beef he sells is every bit as flavorful and marbled as the best Black Angus anywhere.

And I must admit that it feels good to be putting money directly into the pockets of a local grower, knowing that pretty much every penny I pay gets re-circulated locally for feed, supplies, veterinary services, etc., not to mention supporting a local mom ’n pop custom packing plant just up the road from where we live.

For most people, there’s precious little chance to leverage the economic conditions that one way or another impact all of us, no matter what our profession or business affiliations. Buying food locally, however, provides exactly such an opportunity, albeit on a microscopic scale.

Emotions meet economics

Now, if merely wanting to buy food from someone local, someone you might see at a community function or in church on Sunday,were the only motivation behind the buy-direct trend, it’d be safe to say it’s likely to stay small and insignificant. But there are larger factors at work here, including three significant ones:

  • Antibiotics. It’s tough to gauge the depth of people’s aversion to buying meat from conventionally raised livestock, where antibiotics certainly aren’t“pumped into animals” the way activists claim, but are used for health promotion and disease control. But when alternatives are available—and costs are comparable—people are voting with their wallets.
  • Biotech. As a measure of how deep the distrust about genetic engineering tends to run, the Star-Tribune story—and plenty of others like it—quoted people who were “concerned” about feeding GE corn and soy to cattle. There’s no proof, no logical connection between such ingredients and any human health effects whatsoever, but the demonization of biotechnology is so severe many otherwise savvy consumers avoid GE foods as if they were lighted sticks of dynamite.
  • Profit. Expect this negative notion to become even more critical as beef prices trend upward. As if anyone in this century needs to be reminded, there is a strong antipathy to corporate anything. If Big Ag, Big Beef, Big Supermarkets or any other “Big” is involved in the production, processing and marketing of food, there is an automatic and visceral reaction, and the best antidote is sourcing one’s food outside of those commercial channels.

Secondary to this trend, in my view, is the natural/nutritious angle with which ranchers and direct marketers have heavily laced their advertising strategies. That benefit seems important, sure, but it’s not capable of creating an emotional response that not only drives people to jump through the additional hoops it often requires to buy direct, but in many cases, to pay the additional freight.

Flavor, on the other hand, can do exactly that. If people are convinced that local, pasture-raised beef tastes better (and I’ll argue that it often does), then buyers can grow fiercely loyal to that rancher or distributor who offers such a product. But “better for you?” Not nearly as powerful.

The one thing standing between “boutique beef” (if that’s a fair generalization) and a greater share of the animal protein segment is availability. The limitations on direct beef sales are strictly on the supply side.

I’ve often said that if someone were to invent a small, self-contained, city lot-sized meatpacking/processing system—the equivalent, if you will, of the craft brewing technology for beer making, that anyone can buy for the price of a luxury car—we’d see an unprecedented surge in specialty beef brands, small-scale production and feeding operations and direct-to-consumer sales that would take a bite out of supermarket sales.

That’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, but the trends fueling consumers’ attraction to alternatives to the conventional beef case aren’t going anywhere, either.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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