American taste for a high-end, healthy beef is getting some Australian flavor.
Demand for grass-fed beef, derived from cows that roam and graze freely their entire lives, is on the rise. But most U.S. farms raise cattle conventionally, meaning that cows are treated with antibiotics and hormones, fed a corn-based grain diet, and usually kept indoors. So to find grass-fed beef, companies are looking nearly 9,500 miles away.
Australian beef exports to the U.S. have been steadily increasing, and Safeway, Organic Valley, Stop & Shop, and other food suppliers have already turned to sourcing grass-fed beef from Australian farms. Last week, another household name hopped on the bandwagon headed Down Under: Chipotle.
The burrito giant has recently begun sourcing some of its beef supply from ranches in southern Australia, Beef Central reports. The U.S. supply of domestic responsibly raised beef, Chipotle says, isn't growing fast enough to meet demand.
"Even though our loyalty to American ranchers is strong, rather than meet the shortfall with conventionally raised beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, we decided to take this opportunity to start sourcing more truly grass-fed steak," Chipotle founder Steve Ells explained in a Huffington Post op-ed.
Australians are, unsurprisingly, pretty pleased about the new cash flow. "This is a very positive development for Australian beef, and represents further evidence of the growing grass-fed beef niche in the U.S.," David Pietsch, the U.S. regional manager for Meat and Livestock Australia, tells Beef Central.
Unlike the continental U.S., the Australian landscape is ideal for raising grass-fed cows for meat production. NPR's Dan Charles explains:
Curt Lacy, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, says some of the reasons are pretty simple. Weather, for instance. In most of the U.S., it freezes. In Australia, it doesn't. So in Australia, as long as there's water, there's grass year-round.
And then there's the issue of land. "If you're going to finish animals on grass, it takes more land," Lacy says. Grassland in Australia is relatively cheap and plentiful, and there's not much else you can do with a lot of it, apart from grazing animals.
Such conditions mean that grass-fed cattle farms are the norm in Australia: 70 percent of the country's beef production comes from cows that spent their entire lives grazing. And when the supply of grass-fed beef is that large, Charles writes, shipping it elsewhere becomes feasible.
Domestic beef is historically cheaper than imported beef, according to Beef Issues Quarterly. Some of the costs don't come in dollars but in environmental effects: Flying or sailing beef in from another continent produces significantly more carbon emissions than trucking it across state lines. But for companies like Chipotle, it appears that cattle-raising practices trump prices.
The American beef market has also seen better days. Although the U.S. is the world's largest beef producer, the country's current cattle herd is its smallest in 63 years, according to a Bloomberg survey. The shortage has pushed retail prices for beef to an all-time high. The Agriculture Department predicts beef production will drop 5.4 percent this year, hitting a 20-year low.