Linda F. Benedict, Harrison, Jr, Robert W, Gillespie, Jeffrey M.
R. Wes Harrison, Jeffrey M. Gillespie, Guillermo Scaglia and Bo Lin
In a forage-fed beef operation, cattle are fed grass and forage for their lifetime, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Animals are not fed grain or grain byproducts and have continuous access to pasture during the growing season. Health claims associated with grass-fed beef relative to grain-fed include reduced fat content, less saturated fat, and greater concentrations of beneficial nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid. Other benefits often attributed to grass-fed cattle include better animal welfare, improved environmental sustainability, and antibiotic- and hormone-free beef production. Grain-fed beef is the most common way beef is produced in the United States. Animals are fed a grain-based feed, which is primarily corn, in a feedlot during the final 90-180 days before slaughter.
In 2012, LSU AgCenter researchers sent a survey to a national sample of 2,000 beef eaters regarding consumer preferences, attitudes and consumption of grass-fed beef. The purpose of the survey was to better understand consumer attitudes toward grass-fed beef and how often grass-fed beef is consumed compared to grain-fed beef. Researchers also wanted to determine if consumers prefer a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that certifies specific production methods for grassfed beef.
Results from the survey showed that 58.9 percent of respondents recall eating grass-fed beef at least once in the past year. The average respondent indicated that of the last 10 times they consumed meat or seafood, they ate grass-fed beef 1.41 times as compared to 2.32 times for grain-fed beef. Chicken was the most common meat consumed with an average frequency of 3.47 times. Seafood averaged 1.47 times and pork, 1.33 times.
That the average respondent indicated eating grass-fed beef 1.41 times out of 10 is not consistent with other national data, which show grass-fed beef remains a relatively small percentage of total beef consumption. One explanation for this is that most consumers do not know how beef is produced in the United States. As part of the survey design, researchers asked questions about consumers’ knowledge and consumption of grass-fed beef before providing a definition of the production method. Results showed that 52.2 percent of respondents associated the raising of cattle on open pasture with grass-fed production, even though most cattle spend some period of their lives on pasture before being finished on grains in a feedlot. In contrast, only 9.5 percent of respondents associated grass-fed production with cattle that have never been fed grains.
Researchers also asked questions about consumer attitudes regarding the benefits of grass-fed beef. The statement pertaining to animal welfare received the highest percentage of agreement among both grass-fed and grain-fed beef eaters (Figure 1). More than 50 percent of those claiming to be grassfed beef eaters agreed with the statement that grass-fed beef is produced in a way that is better for the animal’s welfare. Higher percentages of grass-fed beef eaters agreed with all statements tested, with animal welfare and en environmental and health benefits receiving the top three rankings. Aside from the statement pertaining to animal welfare, all other statements received less than 50 percent of agreement from both grass- and grain-fed beef eaters.
Analysis of respondent ratings of grass- and grain-fed beef showed that the average respondent preferred a grass-fed product with a USDA certification, as compared to uncertified grass-fed or grain-fed beef products. This result is somewhat counterintuitive since grain-fed beef is purchased in greater quantities relative to grassfed beef in the United States. This is likely caused by a relatively higher price for grass-fed products, which reduces consumption of grass-fed beef relative to grain-fed beef. In addition, results also show a higher preference for beef that is produced locally and domestically, compared to imported beef. Consumers prefer choice and prime beef steaks compared to select beef steaks. Individuals who live in the West expressed a stronger preference for grass-fed beef relative to those living in other regions of the United States.
Figure 2 shows the relative importance of top-rated attributes by the average respondent in the sample. The two most important attributes are grass-fed with a USDA certification and local production. This is a significant result indicating a relatively strong preference for a USDA certification, similar to the popular Black Angus beef certification program. The results also indicate a relatively strong preference for locally produced beef, which is consistent with national trends that show an increased preference for local foods.
R. Wes Harrison is the Warner L. Bruner Regents Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness. His co-authors are Jeffrey M. Gillespie, Martin D. Woodin Endowed Professor in the department; Guillermo Scaglia, associate professor at the Iberia Research Station in Jeanerette; and Bo Lin, former research associate in the department.
This article was published in the fall 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.