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Beef. It may be what's for dinner, but Americans are increasingly turning to more organic and natural options to satisfy their cravings, according to supermarket industry and health magazine reports.
Nationwide sales of the specialty meat from cattle that are not fed antibiotics, hormones or animal bi-products, are up 20 percent from last year, due partly to diet trends, fears of mad cow disease and word of mouth from longtime natural and organic consumers.
"People are trying to get away from the chemicals in our food chain," said natural beef farmer Todd Weber, who has operated Star View Farm on Zaring Mill Road for about five years. "If you raise your animals and your garden as cleanly as possible without using weird chemicals it's better for you."
Weber's 10 to 15 cows graze on about 12 acres of Shelby County grassland. Additional grain is added to the steers' diets during the final weeks before they are slaughtered to add to the beef's quality.
"There's no hormones or steroids -- just Shelbyville city water," he said.
To ensure integrity, Weber rejects stockyard cattle in favor of small local operations, which can trace the authenticity of a cow's "naturalness" back 35 years.
"They keep records so I know exactly what I'm getting," Weber said.
While Weber said his cows are organically raised, stringent requirements enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture make it difficult to obtain official organic beef certification.
Weber said it is difficult and costly to obtain certified organic hay and other products, which must used under U.S.D.A organic regulations, because there are few certified organic farms in the region.
"To do that nobody would be able to afford my beef," he said.
Unlike producers of "natural" meat products, which are minimally processed and free of preservatives and additives, organic producers must be certified annually for compliance with organic standards to raise, feed and process their livestock. Organically raised cattle also must be tracked from birth to consumption.
With the growing popularity of organic beef, many producers in the industry are scurrying to boost production to meet demands from major grocers, which are unable to obtain enough organic beef supplies to keep their shelves stocked. Because of limited supplies, organic beef represents less than 2 percent of overall beef sales for most retailers, according to national grocer statistics.
Where's the beef?
Although neither the local Wal-Mart Supercenter or Kroger stocks organic beef, it can be found at Kroger in Middletown. Weber also sells and ships his natural beef on-line at www.kentuckynaturalbeef.com. Weber offers free delivery within 50 miles of Shelbyville. His natural beef runs $2.79 a pound, according to the website. Organic beef can retail as high as $4 and $6 a pound at other outlets -- about double that of conventional ground beef. That is partly because organic feed for cattle can cost twice as much as conventional feed, said Weber. A ton of organic cattle feed can cost from $350 to $400 a ton versus $220 or less for a ton of conventional feed. Certifying food as organic also involves additional administrative costs.
Does natural and organic beef taste better?
Weber thinks so. That is because most steers secrete stress hormones before they are slaughtered, which adversely affects the taste of the meat.
"We raise our beef as humanely as possible," Weber said. "Everyone that's purchased beef from me has enjoyed it, and we really like it. I think it's better for you."