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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The East-West Divide on Organic and Natural Meat

After reading "The United States of Arugula", a history of what made the U.S. a gourmet nation and speaking to friends in Eugene, Oregon recently, I have concluded that the Western United States is light years ahead of the East Coast when it comes to organic products, in particular organic and natural meats. I plan to write another article about the differences between organic and natural meats, but for the purposes of this article I will use the term natural as a catch-all phrase for organic, natural, grass-fed, free range, and/or hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat.

Why is it that after each food scare, most recently the recall of 180 million pounds of beef from a slaughterhouse in California, the renewed clamor about going "organic" or back to the "old-fashioned" ways of farming rises to, at best, a distant thunder. And then subsides! Why are so many people willing to risk their health on a product that even under the best of circumstances shouldn't make up the large portion of our diet that it does? And finally, why do residents in West Coast outposts like Eugene OR, Seattle WA and San Francisco CA and all localities between them seem to embrace natural meats so much so that natural meat can be found in corner stores at relatively reasonable prices? It's time that the East Coast, mainly Boston to DC also known as the Northeast corridor, gets its act together. This will require producers, middlemen, retail outlets and consumers to create a supply chain as distinct, entrenched and seamless as that of conventional meat. Eventually, the East Coast's demand for, consumption of and dedication to natural meat will rival that of the West Coast's.

There will be three phases of this trend or movement; Economies of scale phase, Trickle-down phase and the Protest of the Proletariat phase. In the Economies of Scale phase, the educated and affluent will be targeted. They already make up the majority of natural meat consumers, but they are still a largely untapped market. Right now the net is cast so wide with many small producers and literally millions of advocates. Unfortunately, most of these advocates can't afford to buy enough natural meat and most of the producers have no scale to lower prices nor an integrated system to get their products to the necessary number of retail outlets. This catch-22 can only be overcome by increasing demand from the segment of consumers with the most money to spare. As they demand more product and pay the associated premium for that product, producers will start producing more and eventually reduce their costs as they create economies of scale.

However, even when the price of natural meats becomes competitive, many "resisters" will continue to believe that the meat is too costly, too snobby or too earthy-crunchy. This won't last long, though. In the Trickle-Down phase, many consumers in the upper-middle and middle classes will determine that they are missing out on something special. Whether it's keeping up with the Jones' or simply becoming more aware of the benefits of natural meat, this group will add more money and muscle to the supply chain. People will choose to eat less meat so they can afford better meat or they will simply sacrifice elsewhere in order to make natural meat a regular part of their diet. At this point, somewhere between 50 - 75 % of the population will become net natural meat consumers. In other words, they will make natural meat 51% or more of the total meat they consumer. This trend will eventually meet with resistance by those who are only willing to buy meat at the lowest possible price. This is true regardless of quality or even if the price differential is just pennies per pound.

Fortunately, the cries of injustice will break down this final barrier. Meat, regardless of quality, is considered a staple of the American diet. When 150 million Americans start eating organic and natural meats on a regular basis and the media coverage of the benefits of these meats over conventionally produced meats becomes omnipresent, the other 80 million Americans will begin to cry foul, shouting "Food Injustice!"

"Food Justice" has become quite a buzz phrase over the past 20 years. According to Bryant Terry, the founder of the youth-based, not-for profit B-Healthy,food justice assumes access to healthy food is a human right and enforcing this right requires organized responses that are locally driven and owned. Perhaps I’m na├»ve, but once the word gets out that half of our population is eating inferior and possibly toxic meat while the rest of us stay healthier and live longer, capitalism will do all the heavy lifting from that point on. Intervention from within and without by a laundry list of activist groups to end this injustice won’t be necessary.

This article assumes that everyone, at some point, will become net natural meat consumers in the United States and perhaps 100% natural meat consumers. This may seem "pie-in-the-sky", but meat is a staple of the American diet and access to it is considered a birthright. Something so important to the American way of life should be of the highest quality. Right now consumers confuse specific breeds and USDA quality grades with quality. Breeds offer marginally different flavors and grades offer degrees of tenderness, juiciness and flavor as well. But what about the quality or healthfulness of the fat itself? What about residual traces of hormones and antibiotics in meat? What about the treatment of the animal, the environment and the farmer for that matter during the lifecycle of one head of livestock? None of these questions are answered when you buy Certified Angus Prime Beef. Organic answers some of these questions and a new formalized certification for natural meat may answer even more. I hope you want to know those answers as you begin your journey from conventional meat to natural meat.

1 comment:

JEN ZONE said...

You cook. You think. You write. You create. You share.

What a gift!

Thank you,

-jif

I just found you!

Hope to see more of your creative way in the future.