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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow The two-tiered beef market

The two-tiered beef market

Wagyu cattle are a niche product for ranchers seeking to cater to the high-end beef market. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).
Wagyu cattle are a niche product for ranchers seeking to cater to the high-end beef market. (Baker City Herald/Kathy Orr).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

The nation's beef-buying public has divided itself into two groups, says Dr. Sam Harrell: those who want a product that's cheap and easy to prepare, and those who prefer quality.

"It's a two-tiered buying market now," Harrell told the American Wagyu Association, meeting in Baker City Friday and Saturday. "The difference is dramatic, and it's become more pronounced in the last 10 years. I think this is the way it's going to be for a while.

"Wagyu has something to offer each segment, but a lot more to the quality segment."

Harrell, a chemist by training, raises registered Angus and Wagyu cattle and markets gourmet meat in Austin, Texas. He spoke Friday to about 70 people from eight states and seven countries attending the conference at the Best Western Sunridge Inn.

Harrell and his fellow producers of higher-end beef face one very large obstacle: the nation's top three purchasers of meat — the Wal-Mart, Safeway and Kroeger grocery food chains — generally opt to stock their meat counters with inexpensive and easy-to-prepare products, Harrell said.

"There's a drive for efficiency based on price," he said. But the good news for producers of high-end meat is that "in the health food sphere, (consumers) are rewarding Whole Foods, which now has 137 stores."

Whole Foods also carries other locally-produced higher-end branded products, such as Oregon Country Beef.

Harrell summarized about 1,100 pages worth of studies done on the nutritional benefits of beef consumption that have been published since the group's 2002 conference in Austin. Among the findings:

o A Tufts University researcher took her study way back to Biblical times. When the prophet Daniel was growing up, he was placed at the king's table for dinner each evening. But the young man asked to be excused from the rich diet, eating instead what the rest of the members of the royal court ate. The less fatty diet proved beneficial: the young prophet saw the future better when he ate healthier, the researcher said.

"What's the moral of this story?" Harrell asked. "A socially acceptable diet may not be the best one."

o Humans are very adaptable animals, another researcher found. The Bantus, for example, derive 10 percent of their food energy from fat, while Eskimos derive about 60 percent.

But the human race is becoming increasingly reliant on four grains — wheat, maize, corn and rice — for about 75 percent of the food they eat. Because those four grains are high in carbohydrates, eating so much of them "has led to a degradation in general health and to obesity," Harrell said.

o Another study indicated that seven six-ounce pieces of meat per week led people to lose weight and gain health.

"The evidence is growing," Harrell said, "that beef's not so bad — so long as you're eating the right kinds of beef."

"We have an advantaged animal from a genetic point of view," Harrell told the Wagyu producers in his audience.

A Washington State University Animal Sciences professor, Dr. Jan Busboom, delivered much the same message, but from a more technical perspective.

Wagyu cattle, which are fed up to 500 days at finishing, are much higher in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), including oleic acid, which accounts for 41 percent of the fatty acids in a Wagyu ribeye steak. Oleic acid, the fatty acid in beef, can promote the presence of LDL, the so-called "good cholesterol," Busboom said.

And linoleic acid, which is found in small quantities in beef, is important to helping the body ward off everything from sterility in males to heart and circulatory problems, he said.

Most Americans, he believes, would prefer to get the nutrition they need from their diet as opposed to popping pills, including diet supplements.

Cattle producers may be enjoying record high prices as of late, but a continued healthy return on investment is difficult to predict.

"Just look at the last few years," he said, ticking off major developments in the world's cattle markets, ranging from E. coli domestically to mad cow disease in Europe, then Japan and Canada. A ban on Canadian cattle imports to the U.S. has led to the best cattle prices in 10 years in this country, he noted.

But just one case of foot-and-mouth disease — which terrorists could conceivably introduce into the U.S. market — could wipe out all those gains, and then some. And the future of proposed Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) further clouds the crystal ball, Busboom said.

Producers of high-end beef ought to stick to their current approach, he advised.

"Identify your market, and produce a product that's safe, palatable and nutritious," he said.

 
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