Where’s the beef?

Posted on May 12th, 2010 by Erin McCarthy in Meatpacking District, Meatpacking industry

Meatpackers Learn to Cope with a New Kind of Marketing

by Aaron Adler and Graham Kates

If you ever want to get a meatpacker all riled up, ask him about “grass-fed” beef.

(Editor’s Note: Meatpackers routinely carry with them an assortment of large, thick-bladed knives. Please consider that before getting one riled up.)

You’ll quickly be informed that the public is woefully uneducated about the complexities of meat marketing. Selling steak just isn’t what it used to be. Even Manhattan’s meatpacking district is now known more for its trendy clubs and restaurants instead of its high quality sirloins. And the few that are left in the neighborhood say they are often stuck at a crossroads between their devotion to high-quality product, and the need to satisfy the demands of modern consumers who are increasingly conscious of marketing phrases like “grass-fed.”

The term “grass-fed” is actually a misthumbnail2nomer, says Mark Solasz, the Sales Director for Master Purveyors, a Bronx-based meatpacker. It only hints at where cattle are raised, but rarely sheds light on the qualityof the meat.

“While a lot of people ask for grass-fed, what they really mean — although they don’t know that they mean it — is they really want it to be grass-finished,” said Solasz. Grass-fed cows are raised completely on grass and hay, and produce steak that is leaner (healthier, but sometimes less tasty), while grass-finished cows were raised on feed — usually a combination of grains. Then fed only grass for the last three or four weeks of its life.

But in terms of quality, there’s more to “grass-fed/finished” than labeling. George Faison, co-owner of Debragga and Spitler meat purveyors — one of the few remaining butchers in New York’s Meatpacking District — said the fact that a cow ate grass is less important than where and when that grass was eaten.

“Grass-fed beef can be extraordinary, but only when the pasture the animal is feeding on is extraordinary. In certain regions, pasture is only good at certain times of the year,” said Faison. “You go to Texas and pasture is only good in the winter. North Carolina, it’s beautiful pasture in the spring and in the fall.”

While “grass-fed” might conjure up images of happy bovine lazing their days away on pristine green ranges, it could just mean that the cow your steak comes from ate only hay…. while confined to a feedlot. Grass-finished, on the other hand, means that the cow was raised on feed — usually a combination of grains — for most of its life, and then fed only grass for the last three or four weeks of its life. Grass finishing does two things that meatpackers love — it raises the pH in cows to levels that kill E. coli, and it aids in the marbleizing of fat on cows’ muscles.

In both cases, the term “grass” can be misleading. Hay, rice bran and almond hulls are all  classified as “grass” by the United States Department of Agriculture.

While meat terms can be confusing, Solasz said they’ve been a boon for small farms that have traditionally had difficulty competing with large industrial operations. Grass-fed cows sell at a higher price, which gives small farms with a limited shipping capacity the opportunity to make more money per cow.

“There are restaurants that are willing to pay me $3.50 a pound for the product from a small farm,” said Solasz. “Whereas, if you were to market that product to a supermarket that’s not geared up to sell all-natural, they expect to pay $2.”

In a 2007 study published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Colorado State University researchers found that 12.5 percent of consumers were willing to pay extra for beef they thought was healthier than normal, and 13 percent would pay more for beef they considered “humanely raised.” In either case, consumers showed a willingness to pay extra for “grass-fed” beef, which tends to be leaner and is often perceived as more humane.

The problem with higher prices, meatpackers say, is helping customers determine which stuff is actually good, and which isn’t.

“The change we’re up against is teaching people what they really want, despite what they think they want,” said Faison.

Check out our multimedia feature on the “greening” of the South Bronx, as it leads the city in the green jobs movement.

One Comment on “Where’s the beef?”

  1. The greening of the South Bronx | Industry NYC

    […] Check out our feature on the meatpacking industry in Manhattan, as meatpacking plants come up with new marketing tools. […]

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