Why Cheap Meat Isn’t Worth the Price


Some people argue over the value of buying more expensive organic and pastured or free-range meat. A lot of people don’t want to pay the premium. Usually the argument is that it tastes the same, pastured/free-range is a sham, and that it just flat-out costs too much. I like to ask them what they know about the meat on their plates and where it comes from.

Most people aren’t able to tell you much at all.

There are legitimate reasons that pastured, free range and organic costs more than your average meat from a big box store, and most of them have to do with where the animal comes from, how it’s raised, and what happens to it after slaughter. When you trace the path backwards from your plate through the store, the processing facilities, and back to the farm, I think many will find that they’re not so comfortable letting price determine value.

Meat is an expensive commodity product. It’s manpower and land intensive, and it requires a significant investment of time. Farmers need to make a living. They have equipment to maintain, property taxes to pay, and families of their own to feed. Animals have to be fed and cared for for months or years.

Factory farming, which is what most conventionally produced meat now consists of, can be extremely ugly. Battery cages and concentrated animal feed lots, where animals are tightly packed and frequently heavily medicated are not for the faint of heart. A CAFO can bring a cow to slaughtering weight in a single year, as opposed to 2-4 years for a pastured animal, because they’re fed a diet of corn and restricted in movement.

It’s an unfortunate truth that these are mostly considered acceptable only because people don’t know what the standard practices have become to consist of: many small farmers out of business, deforestation in South America, large quantities of antibiotics in North America, and growing methane emissions all over.

And so traditionally raised meat will never be “cheap,” and it never should be.

If we accept that meat shouldn’t be cheap, that it should be sourced from our local farmers, raised naturally, and humanely treated, then Houston, we have a problem. Few can afford a standard North American diet of steak and fried chicken every day this way.

The answer is that we’ve got to change our diets some, and I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. When you eat pastured beef, it’s got fewer calories; less saturated fat; more vitamin A, E and Beta Carotene;  and high levels of Omega-3. It’s more sustainable, too, as fewer human food resources and medicines are going towards the production of a pound of meat (we’re putting as much as 16 pounds of grain and about a gallon of oil into making every pound of beef, when 1/7th of the world’s population doesn’t have enough to eat).

As North Americans, we need to eat less meat and make it better quality. We should know where we’re buying it from, respect the people and animals that provide us with our meals, and be able to stand behind the ethics and methods used to produce it. When you find cheap meat some place, ask yourself what are you really voting for with your dollars? What conditions will you approve of (knowingly or not) when you make the purchase?

Then ask yourself: is it worth it?

Comments (4)

  • I agree 100%. We had the most amazing butcher in our last city and are currently searching for a similar one in our new home. Not only does the meat taste better, it is supporting local farmers, and the conditions of the animals and land is better (I assume).
    It was a bit more expensive but worth every penny, not to mention we did eat meat less frequently – changing up our diet and exploring new protein sources.

  • Great post Anne ☺ I refuse to buy meat from Wal-mart specifically because of the treatment of the animals! We buy our meat from our local store as we know that it comes from the local farms and is treated/fed/housed/slaughtered properly. With all the stories going arounf about factory meat it’s kind of hard not to think about the horrible conditions these animals live in.

  • Hi Anne,

    I would love to see some references for the claims you make in this post regarding sustainability and nutrition…and for most of the other statistics you provide. “Factory farming, which is what most conventionally produced meat now consists of, can be extremely ugly.” I’m not sure where you live, but in Canada 98% of farms are family-owned. (http://www.statcan.gc.ca/ca-ra2006/agpop/article-eng.htm) and anywhere from 94-98% of farms in the States are family-owned.

    As a farmer, I really hate the term “factory farm” as it has such a negative connotation. We farm a medium-large sized grain farm of >6300 acres, does that make us a factory grain farm? The thing is, farmers and ranchers care greatly about their animals. If they don’t treat their animals properly, keep them healthy and care for them, the animals aren’t going to produce and the farmers are going to lose money. Here’s a picture of a cow on a by definition “factory farm” from my friend who is a feedlot vet, he’s very transparent about the care of his animals, you should follow him on Instagram: http://instagram.com/p/opg3z1Oqqx/

    Speaking of methane emissions, the pasture-fed cows release 10% more methane than cows finished in a feedlot on grain so if all/most cows were moved to the “natural” way we’d have a LOT more methane emissions on our hands http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/qa-on-conventional-production-of-canadian-beef/

    Again, looking forward to your citations and hearing back from you.

  • I disagree with your general statement that ‘local, organic, grass-fed…’ production practices are better than ‘traditional, conventional’. Both production types are used by family farms of all sizes and both are choices. To state that grass-fed has less environmental impact is totally wrong. Common sense shows that feeding and watering an animal for months longer until processing means that animal is using MORE resources. Now multiply that times thousands of animals. I’m proud of beef and pork industry for utilizing modern techniques to improve animal care while decreasing environmental impact.

    Peg Greenway

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