Your Chipotle Burrito, Brought to You by Australia

The land Down Under has a massive cattle operation that’s making U.S. food companies salivate.

An organic, grass-fed cattle farm in Nebraska.
National Journal
Marina Koren
June 3, 2014, 11:41 a.m.

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.

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