Producers find niche in serving beef raised without antibiotics

By Becky Borher The Associated Press
Thursday January 10, 2002

BILLINGS, Mont. — Ranchers hungry for meatier returns on their cattle are weighing their production options — and more of them are holding the antibiotics. 

“Demand has been more than we ever anticipated,” said Ray Killian, president of Meyer Natural Angus. 

The Montana company, with producers in about a dozen states, plans this year to slaughter about 35,000 cattle — nearly double the number last year — that are raised according to its strict protocol, which includes using no antibiotics and no growth hormones and focusing on animal health. 

From natural food stores to supermarkets to mainstream restaurants, beef raised without antibiotics has found a receptive audience, including health-conscious consumers and meat eaters who want to a better idea of where their cuts originated. 

Keying in on the market and like-minded consumers, some beef producers have taken the additional step of not using growth hormones. Such hormones are sometimes used to fatten animals before slaughter. 

Killian said raising cattle without the use of antibiotics is more than just an effort to capitalize on a niche market; it’s motivation to raise cattle differently. 

“What it does is force us to have a ’well-animal program’ to keep the animals healthy so they don’t have to be treated, and I think that’s a positive contributor to the taste and the quality of the product,” Killian said. 

At the Missoula-based Meyer Natural Angus and at Montana Range Meat Co., a Billings-based operation with a network of producers, cattle requiring antibiotics for health reasons are culled from the herd, treated and later sold at traditional markets. 

Potential health benefits from beef raised without antibiotics are still being debated. 

Dr. David Wallinga, with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, is among those who argue that overusing antibiotics contributes to antibiotic resistance that could be passed on to humans. 

John Paterson, an extension beef specialist at Montana State University, said many consumers perceive beef raised without antibiotics to be healthier. So far, however, he said there is no solid evidence to back that up. 

“But, as meat producers, if the consumer wants the product, we’re going to produce that product for them,” he said, noting projections for the beef market that show continued interest in such products. 

Producers who market their beef as being raised without antibiotics must provide the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service with written documentation about their handling procedures of the animals, a spokeswoman said. The agency approves labeling of products making special claims, such as “raised without antibiotics,” before they can be used. 

T.G.I. Friday’s now serves Meyer Natural Angus burgers in its restaurants, a decision bolstered by the meat’s taste and performance in consumer surveys, said Tom Koenigsberg, vice president of domestic marketing for T.G.I Friday’s. 

Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said there’s room for diversification in the industry, and he applauds efforts to tap new markets. But he said he did not want to send a message that one method of raising beef was superior to another, or that treating livestock with antibiotics to keep them healthy is bad. 

Lee Leachman, chief executive officer of Montana Range Meat Co., which specializes in Piedmontese cattle raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, said producers the past two years received premiums averaging 13 cents per pound of carcass weight. 

“The premiums we’re offering can make it so, in the bad years, (a cattle rancher) breaks even and in the rest of the years, he makes double what he would have. That’s pretty significant,” said Leachman, whose family also owns Leachman Cattle Co., a breeding stock business. 

Killian said the market represents an opportunity for ranchers. 

“We, as cattlemen, are going to have to target our cattle to some specific market. We can’t just go out and raise cattle and then hope that somebody buys them,” he said. “This is just an option for some ranchers who want to target the natural beef marketplace.”