On April 19, more than 100 beef buyers, retailers, chefs and producers gathered at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture to assess the findings of a new study and to discuss where the grassfed beef industry is headed. The Pasture to Plate summit was addressed by Paul McMahon of SLM Partners. It featured an interactive lunch hosted by Blue Hill chefs Dan Barber and Adam Kaye.

The main focus of the one-day summit was the release of a new study, “Back to Grass: the Market Potential for U.S. Grassfed Beef.”  The study was co-authored by SLM Partners in collaboration with the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Armonia and Bonterra Partners. 

The study finds an urgent need for accurate labeling to ensure that consumers are getting what they think they are buying, including the humane treatment of animals and environmental and health benefits.

“The U.S. market for grassfed beef has grown at 100 percent per year for the past four years, yet consumers don’t realize that much of this beef is coming from cattle that haven’t actually spent the whole of their lives on open pasture, eating real grass,” said Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, one of the partners behind the study.

The common perception among restaurateurs and consumers used to be that grassfed beef was tough and dry compared to that of grain-fed beef, but today, star chefs buy grassfed exclusively, saying that the quality and taste are superior to that of conventional feedlot beef. And evidence is mounting that well-managed animals can regenerate grasslands, build soil health and sequester carbon.

But the grassfed beef on the market is inaccessible to many consumers due to high price premiums; its supply chain has not benefited from decades of consolidation, vertical integration and government subsidies, as has the conventional beef supply chain.

The study finds that the price of grassfed beef could come down significantly if the industry were to establish well-managed grass-finishing operations that take advantage of economies of scale in processing, distribution and marketing. But these operations must be based on high standards for the humane treatment of animals and for land and water stewardship. Currently a number of labels and standards confuse the marketplace and the consumer, as they conflate excellent management practices with poor ones.

Together, these actions could reshape the beef industry — and unlock the benefits to human health, animal welfare, soil health and carbon sequestration that grassfed beef can provide.

Further details can be found on the Stone Barns Center website