More try 'free-range,' 'natural' practices
Posted on Sun, Aug. 24, 2003
BUCKLIN, Mo. - In an old wooden building where years ago sows suckled their young, 100-watt light bulbs warm an old kind of farming that is new again.
Fuzzy yellow chicks, delivered in cardboard boxes by U.S. Priority Mail two days before, totter across wood chips in pens fashioned from pickup truck liners.
Soon the birds will strut across grass -- albeit 50 to an open-bottom cage with about 1.5 square feet for each and just one corner open to the sun. In a matter of weeks, their caretakers will be their butchers. Anne and Jordan Bentley -- a physical therapist and an auto mechanic, respectively, and a budding farm couple collectively -- see their fate in these fowl. They raise chickens and turkeys by the dozens instead of the thousands common in modern agriculture.
"Our customers" -- people who travel up to 50 miles and arrive by appointment within a day of butchering -- "want something reminiscent of the old days," Anne Bentley said. "So do we."
Growing numbers of Midwesterners are trying out kinder and greener ways of producing meat. So far they report a small but strong consumer appetite for their higher-priced, harder-to-find poultry, pork and beef.
The meat is promoted as an earth- or an animal- or a health-friendly alternative to factory-style farming. It is marketed as "free-range," "natural," "grass-fed" and "pasture-raised." Those terms mean typically whatever the producer wants them to mean.
Scientists say some of the claims about more "natural" meat being more healthful seem plausible but not yet documented -- especially the idea that antibiotic-free animals would be less likely to foster drug-proof bacteria. Experts view other health claims skeptically.
Meats with a green USDA sticker declaring them "organic" or "100 percent organic," however, promise that the animals were raised on feed free of pesticides, that they had at least some daily access to the outdoors and that they did not get hormones or low-grade antibiotics to spur growth.
And yet even that designation does not promise that the livestock passed their days on country pastures. Organic farms can be large and commercial with cramped pens. Organic doesn't mean the meat is lower in fat.
Beyond the labels
For customers of people such as the Bentleys, "the labels don't matter, because people can see exactly what we do," Jordan Bentley said.
Each day the Bentleys drag poultry cages a few feet to fresh grass and bugs. More than three-fourths of their birds' diet comes from grain, an organic mix that Jordan Bentley has devised.
Their chickens are never labeled organic, or anything at all. Federal rules allow only USDA inspectors at certified processing plants to award organic labels. The Bentleys kill and butcher the flock themselves and are limited to selling meat from their farm.
In nearby Macon, Larry Kieffer this month opened a small processing plant -- a building that could fit in the meat section of most supermarkets -- to handle primarily chicken. His plant has a USDA inspector, which allows the meat to be shipped across state lines, but he doesn't boast the organic seal.
He has already contracted with more than a dozen small farms from Memphis, Tenn., to Columbia to "pasture raise" chickens. He will give them chicks and enough feed to sustain their six-week lives -- paying farmers a $1.50 profit for each they raise.
Like the Bentleys, Kieffer's farmers must pull their cages over fresh grass every day. They get paid more per bird than larger outfits that supply huge poultry companies. But the practice requires far more labor per chicken.
"The birds are more humanely raised," Kieffer said. "They're not organic. They're not natural. I don't make any claims like that. They're just pasture-raised."
He plans to sell mostly skinless, boneless breasts to Kansas City restaurants that he says are intrigued by the pasture-raised taste. The other parts of the chicken (in the conventional trade, the United States is a net exporter of dark meat) he will sell in a deli-style retail operation at the Macon plant.
His Missouri Country Fresh business is aimed at the bottleneck between small farmers and consumers of pasture-raised chicken. Likewise, the Wholesome Harvest brand now available at Kansas City area Hy-Vee stores aims to deliver certified organic beef, lamb, chicken, turkey and duck.
Already, mainstream agriculture is feeling some pressure to adopt bits of the ethic this represents.
Matthew Scully's book, Dominion, has drawn wide attention for describing industrial farming as inhumane. It comes amid persistent attacks from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals against practices that keep hogs forever indoors, or that clip the beaks off similarly confined chickens.
Meanwhile, McDonald's now insists that beef suppliers use more humane slaughterhouses and that egg suppliers give each chicken at least 72 square inches to move.
Wende Elliott, who farms near Colo, Iowa, helped establish and later incorporate Wholesome Harvest to get certified organic meat to market.
She said Wholesome Harvest suppliers came in three general types: people she described as "back-to-the-landers" who came to livestock from urban or suburban backgrounds; families who never left small-scale farming, like the Amish; and a smaller number of conventional farmers dismayed at the use of agriculture chemicals.
"It was basically people who ... needed to spend more time on their chores and less going to town selling," Elliott said. Now the company's brochures feature those families' bucolic farmsteads.
Wholesome Harvest consumers look for organic meat, she said, for another handful of reasons: nostalgia for small family farms not much involved in livestock these days; a preference for a stronger taste more similar to wild game; a desire to support practices they see as friendlier toward the environment; and a belief that organic is more healthful.
Experts agree that the more organic and natural practices favor smaller farms, produce a different-tasting meat and avoid the manure hazards that come from concentrating livestock.
The benefits debate
And at least in one way, organic may be more healthful.
The common practice of spiking animal feed with low levels of antibiotics to spur growth is prohibited with organic livestock. A recent World Health Organization report suggested such a move could stem the spread of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
"This reduces the threat of resistance to public health," the report said in studying a ban on the practice in Denmark, which boosted farming costs by about $1 per hog.
Some other health claims, however, may be overstated.
Among the promoted benefits of organic and pasture-raised meat -- even on pasture, nonruminants like hogs and chickens chow primarily on grain rather than grass -- are higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids.
They protect the heart from inflammation that can block arteries. They can also prevent against sometimes fatal irregular heartbeats. Doctors are intrigued as well by studies suggesting the polyunsaturated fats stem diabetes complications and reduce arthritis.
And with cattle, for instance, animals raised entirely on pasture do have slightly elevated levels of Omega-3 fatty acids -- producing 2 grams in a lean cut of beef rather than 1 gram.
But even grass-fed beef is a relatively poor source. Consider that a meal of salmon holds about 30 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids.
On its web site, Wholesome Harvest claims "grass-fed meat is the richest known source of another good fat."
Michael Pariza, a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, wrote ground-breaking research on how conjugated linoleic acid enhanced growth and immune systems and acted as a potent cancer preventative in laboratory animals.
He said ruminant, or cud-chewing, animals like cattle are a good source for conjugated linoleic acid. But research has shown only some variance in conjugated linoleic acid levels in milk depending on the time of year a cow is in pasture.
Pariza said no evidence existed that cattle which did not finish their lives in feedlots carried any more of the substance than those that did. In fact, he speculated that fine-tuned soybean feeds -- rather than pasture grass -- might boost conjugated linoleic acid levels.
"We don't know the effects of this in humans," Pariza said. "We just know that it works in rat models."
What's more, sometimes the difference between ordinary beef and that marketed as grass-fed is a matter of degree. Even a steer from a conventional ranch spends about three-fourths of its life grazing on pasture before spending its last few months fattening up for slaughter at a feedlot.
Supply and demand
Julie Walker raises chickens, turkeys, cattle and hogs on pasture near Fayette with her husband, Tim. Their customers are drawn by distinctive taste. And she cites anecdotes about customers convinced that her meat is more healthful than most of what's sold at supermarkets.
"People will say, `My kid has allergies, but he doesn't have problems with your hamburger, Julie,' " she said.
The Walkers, however, still struggle with the best way to sell their meat. It does not quite meet the government's organic standards, so the premium it fetches is less.
"It is very confusing, the whole labeling thing," said Laura Giannatempo, spokeswoman for the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment. "You kind of know what you get with organic. But there are values to other levels of alternative farming."
Partly because of price -- organic and pasture-raised meats can cost 20 to 100 percent more -- and partly because of consumer awareness lags behind the various gradations for raising livestock, it still represents a tiny part of the market.
Nutrition Business Journal estimated "natural" and organic meat, fish and poultry sales reached $763 million in 2002, or barely 0.6 percent of the total market. Still, that figure was up 25 percent from the previous year. And analysts see the numbers climbing faster in the next few years.
"American consumers are used to cheap and plentiful foods," said Scott Brown, a livestock specialist at the University of Missouri's Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute. "The cost of this stuff is going to keep demand down a little bit....
"But we have even McDonald's getting into the animal-welfare area, and consumers seem to be taking note," he said. "That reflects what consumers are thinking. Which means people, at least some people, are willing to pay more because they care about these things."
To reach Scott Canon, national correspondent, call (816) 234-4754 or send e-mail to email@example.com.