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It's become trendy to eat beef from cattle raised only on pastures, never in feedlots where they eat corn and put on weight faster. But if you look closely at grocery store labels on that pasture-raised beef, there's a good chance you'll find it came from half a world away, in Australia.
NPR's Dan Charles went in search of the reasons why.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: George Siemon, a founder of Organic Valley, one of the big organic food businesses, says demand for grass-fed beef started with activists who wanted to challenge an industry built on factory-scale feedlots and grain.
GEORGE SIEMON: But really the grass-fed has grown beyond that, and just has a certain amount of naturalness that seems to be attracting the mainstream market. It seems to really resonate with them.
CHARLES: Grass-fed beef is still a really small part of the beef market - probably less than five percent of it. But consumers can get it from places like Rain Crow Ranch in southern Missouri.
PATRICIA WHISNANT: They found us, I would say, so that the increase in the market has been phenomenal.
CHARLES: That's Patricia Whisnant, who owns the ranch together with her husband. It's one of the biggest grass-fed operations: several thousand animals grazing on more than 10,000 acres of grassland on the ranch itself and some other farms nearby.
WHISNANT: They roam around and they actually live a life that is behaviorally and biologically appropriate for that ruminant animal.
CHARLES: The Whisnants have some big customers - Whole Foods, for instance. And a couple of years ago, an even bigger potential customer came to visit. It was a meat broker, a company that wanted to supply this increasingly popular product to mainstream supermarkets. The visit went well but, as Patricia Whisnant tells the story, the brokers also found another supplier, a company bringing in grass-fed beef all the way from Australia. That Australian beef was 75 cents or a dollar per pound cheaper.
WHISNANT: They said, you know, we're sorry, we just can't - you can't match that price, so we're going to go with them.
CHARLES: Nobody collects information on exactly how much of the grass-fed beef that Americans eat comes from abroad. Theo Weening, a global meat coordinator for Whole Foods, says his company buys very little.
THEO WEENING: We probably import three percent. And the rest is all from a local, regional program. And that's what we really push for.
CHARLES: But if you go into supermarkets like Safeway, if you find grass-fed beef it's often from Australia. There's also a lot of grass-fed beef coming in from Uruguay and Brazil.
It may seem strange that the U.S., the world's biggest beef producer, has to go abroad to find enough of the grass-fed variety. But Curt Lacy, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia, says some of the reasons are pretty simple.
CURT LACY: Just weather.
CHARLES: In most of the U.S., it freezes. In Australia, it doesn't. So as long as there's water, there's grass year-round. And then there's the issue of land.
LACY: If you're going to finish animals on grass, it takes more land.
CHARLES: Grassland in Australia is cheap and plentiful. And there's not much else you can do with much of it, apart from grazing animals. The result is grass-fed cattle operations that are really big. Seventy percent of Australia's beef production comes from cattle that spent their lives grazing. And when it's large-scale, everything is cheaper, from slaughtering to shipping.
Just this week, the U.S. company Cargill announced a new deal with Australia's second-biggest beef producer. Cargill will now sell more Australian beef in the U.S., both grass-fed and grain-fed.
Now Patricia Whisnant says, sure, you can get cheaper grass-fed beef from abroad. But when you buy from me, you get more than just a commodity.
WHISNANT: We have a story behind what we sell.
CHARLES: It's a story about her family, their ranch, and sons that have just joined the business. Some consumers will pay more for that story. And for the rest, well, American grass-fed operations are trying to get more efficient, too. Many are growing. The Whisnants, for example, have built their own slaughtering operation. They're selling meat via the Internet. Maybe someday, American grass-fed beef won't seem quite so expensive compared to the Australian competition.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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