Tuesday, September 15, 2015

High beef prices leading cattle ranchers to shy away from phasing out antibiotic use

High beef prices are making cattle ranchers reluctant to abandon antibiotic use in livestock, David Kesmodel reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Cattle prices reached all-time highs last year, while U.S. consumers paid a record $6.16 a pound on average for fresh beef in July, up 11 percent from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Oregon cattle rancher Tim Knuths told Kesmodel, “With a real strong market like that, there’s just no advantage to going to a natural program."

While major poultry producers have been phasing out antibiotics, the need to phase out antibiotics in beef is greater, Kesmodel writes. "Beef cattle typically live one to two years before slaughter, providing more time for disease exposure than for chickens, which often live only six weeks. Beef processors also generally have less control over how animals are raised. They typically buy cattle from a wide range of producers and middlemen, while major chicken processors sign growers to contracts to supply them alone." (Journal graphic)

There is more money in going natural, with organic or grass-fed beef varieties—all of which are antibiotic-free—"retailing for 30 percent to 80 percent more per pound than conventional meat," Kesmodel writes. "But ranchers also typically face greater costs and paperwork and must undergo audits to demonstrate they adhere to animal-welfare, sustainability and other standards required by beef buyers or federal labeling rules."

"Recruiting ranchers to produce organic, grass-fed beef—typically the highest-priced variety in stores—is often tough, too," Kesmodel writes. "Raising animals on organically grown grass and hay costs more than conventional U.S. production partly because they take longer to reach slaughter weight. In the U.S. last year, average slaughter weight was 1,330 pounds, according to USDA. Grass-fed cattle generally need 20 to 24 months, while conventional cattle—typically fed a heavy corn diet their final four or five months—need about 16 to 18, said Mack Graves, senior adviser at Panorama Meats, a California-based producer of grass-fed, organic beef."

Limited supplies of antibiotic-free meat—antibiotic-free varieties account for less than 5 percent of the U.S. retail fresh beef market—has led some buyers, like Chipotle Mexican Grill and CKE Restaurants Inc.—which includes Carl’s Jr. and Hardees—to export antibiotic meat from Australia, Kesmodel writes.

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