Americans eat about 16 billion burgers a year. Or 50 billion burgers a year. It depends on which study you read. In 2014, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales.
But according to the USDA, we’re actually eating less beef than we used to. The numbers have been going down pretty steadily since the 1970s. But one trend that’s gaining traction among consumers is the move toward more sustainably raised meat.
Carl’s Jr. was the first hamburger chain to offer an all-natural grass fed beef burger. Brad Haley, its chief marketing manager, explains, “Millennials are probably the most diverse demographic group in the history of the country, but they’re also the biggest foodies. There’s a lot more curiosity and interest in food and the thing that kept coming up in our conversation and research with Millennials is that they wanted their food as clean as they could get it.”
Steve Jacobs, who runs the J Brand Cattle Company with his wife Marci, raises purely grass-fed beef on several ranches he leases throughout Sonoma, Marin, and Napa counties.
“Grass fed beef is raised on open pastures like you’d envision driving up the beautiful Sonoma County coast,” he says. “They’re not in enclosed, confined, dry lots."
That’s different from the Harris Ranch, halfway down Interstate 5 toward Los Angeles, which describes itself as a modern feedlot that covers nearly 800 acres and has the capacity to produce 250,000 head of fed cattle per year. At any given time, there are 70,000 or more cattle in the lot. That means each cow get an average of 1/100 of an acre – the size of about two parking spaces, or a parklet. In contrast, Jacobs says his cows roam on about eight acres per head.
The USDA standard for grass fed certification requires that animals be fed only grass and forage or hay, and no grain or grain byproducts. But Jacobs says any beef you eat starts out that way.
“All cattle are grass fed,” he says. “At some point in time the large majority of cattle are grass fed and then finished on grain.”
James Oltjen from the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis explains, “They will go in the feedlot the last three months of their lives and they gain a lot there in the feedlot because they are given all the grain they want. If you use grain-fed beef you’re going to use a whole lot less land and less labor, too. That’s why it's cheaper.”
So all beef producers carry costs of the water, the land, and the labor, but at the feedlot these costs are minimized. (The US Geological Service reports that it takes 460 gallons of water to produce a quarter pound of beef. As compared to 500 gallons for a whole pound of chicken, or 35 gallons for that morning cup of coffee.)
A major additional cost to the grass-fed producer is time. Jacobs says a grain-fed cow can go to market after a year and a half. But for one of his cows that never leaves the pasture, it can take up to an extra year.
“What I’m doing with my cattle company is raising beef locally that the consumer knows is raised to certain standards,” he says. “There are certain protocols that I follow regarding the humane treatment and raising of beef cattle. Those protocols also increase my costs significantly.”
These costs are reflected in the premium price shoppers pay when they buy his grass-fed beef at markets in Healdsburg and other nearby towns.
“There are a lot of families that can’t afford it and your heart goes out,” he says. “You don’t want a family saying, ‘My gosh I’m not able to provide the best product to my family, because I can’t afford to buy ten dollar ground beef and $35 New York strips.' You do the best you can; you buy what you can buy.”
Premium prices that Carl’s Jr. also avoids by sourcing its grass-fed beef from Australia, where land is more plentiful and cheaper. “We need a lot of beef [and] it’s difficult to find that much volume of grass-fed free-range cattle that have no added hormones, antibiotics, or steroids domestically. So we did go to Australia to find that beef.”
So they may be grass-fed, but they’re certainly not local.
*Listen to the whole story to find out the results of our blind taste test at Carl’s Jr. with local comedian and cheeseburger aficionado, Will Durst.