PEOPLE in the mid-1980s were asking, “Where’s the beef?”
Today, it’s a different question: “What’s in the beef?”
In a time where pink slime, hormones and steroids in commercial meat have raised concerns about long-term health effects, some Columbus residents say it’s worth the added cost to buy locally raised beef, just for the peace of mind of knowing exactly what they’re eating.
When it comes to the beef Denise Packer prepares for her and her husband, Steve, she wants to know how the cattle is raised, fed and what, if anything, was injected into the animal.
“I am looking for local beef providers who can provide lean, grass-fed cattle that are free from all the growth-enhancement injections,” Denise Packer said. “I’m also interested in learning where local cattle are butchered.”
She said that if an animal is not processed properly, it can affect the taste of the beef.
Government regulations allow for feed additives and chemicals to be added during the processing of meat.
If meat buyers better understood the process, many would find it worrisome, said Dave Fischer of Fischer Farms in Jasper.
Purchasing locally raised and processed meat allows the consumer to better know the producer and establish trust, Fischer said.
When Packer was young, her parents bought their beef from a local butcher. Occasionally, her mother would buy beef from the local grocery store, but there was no comparison in taste, Packer said.
Shortly after moving to Columbus in 1995, the Packers began buying their beef from Fleming Family Beef, a Columbus producer. Ordering up to 40 pounds of beef every few months, including several steaks and a roast, they say there isn’t much of a cost difference, especially when they are getting a higher quality of meat.
There is no uniform pricing standard among producers of locally raised beef, so cost can fluctuate, said Albert Armand of Harper Valley Farms, Westport.
But he said it wouldn’t be out of line to pay an additional 10 to 15 percent.
“We try to get as close as possible to the commercial price, but we can’t do it all the time,” Armand said.
Kelly Geckler of Columbus said purchasing locally raised beef is worth the added cost just to know it’s not treated with chemicals and antibiotics. Buying locally also lessens transportation costs for the producer, which is beneficial for the environment, Geckler said.
“I would rather spend extra on food and eat well,” Geckler said. “It’s an important thing I can do to support the local economy and protect the health of my family. I’m not saying I never buy anything that doesn’t have chemicals, but I do the best I can.”
The animal’s environment and what it’s fed directly affects the quality of the meat, including marbling, color, leanness and texture, said Dan Fleming of Fleming Family Beef.
Locally raised cattle are allowed to roam, graze and socialize with one another, Fleming said.
Animals raised en masse for commercial purposes in concentrated animal feeding operations — known as CAFOs, located throughout the West and Midwest — are often fed inconsistent diets, Fleming said.
CAFOs keep large numbers of cattle confined in pens where they’re unable to roam and graze, Fleming said. According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, there are an estimated 625 CAFOs in Indiana, which represent 20 percent of IDEM-regulated Hoosier farms.
The commercially raised cattle may be grass-fed when they’re young, but are often finished on corn or other high-energy crops, such as sugar beets, which can make their meat bland and less lean, Fleming said.
The age of the animal also affects quality, Fleming said. Most animals should be between 1 and 2 years old at the time they’re butchered, Fleming said. The more pink the meat, the younger the animal.
“If you go to the grocery store and try to get lean cuts of beef, you will pay as much, if not more, than what you would pay for locally raised beef,” Packer said. “Once you have eaten excellent, locally grown beef, you won’t go back to buying commercial.”