Natural beef is not more wholesome than conventionally produced beef. Since a demand for non-conventional beef products exists, however, there are incentives for producers to raise and sell their beef through natural branded marketing labels. At first glance, this seems nothing more than firms responding to the economic premiums created by consumer demand. But if you delve deeper into the issue, you’ll find some people are concerned these marketing strategies propagate the false idea that natural beef is, in fact, more nutritionally healthy. To market natural, or not to market natural, that is the dilemma.
Beef can be categorized as conventionally raised, natural, or organic. Are you confused by the difference? Well it is confusing. The term natural beef is somewhat misleading because it is a marketing label rather than a literal description. Technically, any beef not grown in a petri dish is naturally produced. There is no uniform definition of natural beef. It is defined by the many individual companies with natural beef marketing programs. Generally, natural beef is defined as beef produced without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones, but there are other variations.
The market for natural beef has been emerging for nearly two decades. Somehow, the notion that natural beef is healthier has been adopted by many consumers despite the lack of supporting evidence. But they aren’t just interested in the nutritional benefits of natural beef. Many natural beef programs provide audited assurances that certain production practices are strictly followed, even if they make no claims as to the nutritional benefits. Consumers, especially millennials, are growing more interested in how their food is produced. They will pay a premium for the assurance that animals are being treated humanely, and the environment is not being harmed. These consumers are increasingly demanding beef marketed as natural, and are willing to pay more for it.
The increased demand leads to an increase in value of natural beef. This, in turn, provides the economic incentive, necessary for producers, up and down the beef supply chain, to produce more of it. Producing and marketing beef consistent with natural beef marketing labels enables beef producers to effectively differentiate their product. The differentiation leads to financial premiums above those of conventionally produced beef. Differentiation is a sound business strategy, especially in the beef industry where margins are thin and beef is normally considered a homogeneous commodity.
To market natural, or not to market natural, that is the dilemma
Some natural beef programs allow antibiotics and hormones up to a certain stage of production, and others define natural as cattle that were “never-ever” given growth hormones or antibiotics. Similarly, some marketing programs shy away from claiming natural beef is more wholesome, but some explicitly claim it is so. Such claims are made without regard to the scientific process of control, data collection, rigorous analysis, repetition, and academic scrutiny. Research exists that reports no difference in residual levels of hormones, antibiotics, or even pesticides in beef raised as conventional, natural, or organic. Other research, however, suggests natural and organic beef production utilizes a greater proportion of resources per pound produced, since it fails to apply some of the modern innovations that have made beef production more resource efficient.
But does it matter? Some consumers prefer natural beef over conventional, just like they prefer Nike over Reebok, Kellogs over Malt-o-Meal, or domestic vehicles over foreign ones. Should a rancher feel guilty for marketing through natural beef programs just because the consumer is ill-informed?
Several months ago Subway announced a long term strategy to use only ‘natural’ beef in their sandwiches by the year 2025. The announcement garnered impressive media attention, but the truth is, the decision was hardly a pioneering one. Restaurants and fast food chains have been making similar announcements for years. Some producers applauded the decision since it could increase domestic beef demand, but still others feel marketing natural beef misleads consumers into believing it is more wholesome, even though no scientific evidence exists for such claims. For beef producers, retail outlets, and restaurants, deciding whether or not to market natural beef can be a bit of a dilemma.