Monday, May 6, 2013
Rant: Brandt Beef, Is It "The True Natural"?
Is Brandt Beef really The True Natural?
Recently, Grill 23 held a special dinner which was partially in honor of their 30th anniversary, as well as to showcase the wines of Burgess Cellars and Grill 23's ten year relationship with Brandt Beef. I was invited as a media guest to this event and it was well attended, offering a five course meal accompanied by six wines. Both the food and wines were delicious and I had no complaints in the least about the taste or presentation.
Prior to attending the dinner, I researched Brandt Beef, checking out their website and reading other articles about the company. I was left with numerous questions, by what I found and didn't find, and hoped to get some of them answered at the dinner. Eric Brandt, the managing partner at Brandt Beef, attended the dinner and I was fortunate to get a chance during the course of the dinner to ask him a series of questions about their operations. It was an enlightening conversation.
Brandt Beef refers to itself as "The True Natural," a phrase which they have even trademarked. Their website states they are a "premium natural beef producer that is dedicated to sustainable practices." However, the website fails to actually define the term "true natural," instead listing some of their practices, such as choosing not to use antibiotics and hormones. So what is the definition of "true natural"? Would the average consumer believe Brandt Beef is "true natural?"
The USDA defines "natural" beef as: "A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as "no artificial ingredients; minimally processed"). As you can see, that is a very general definition which says nothing about how the animal is raised. There is no USDA definition for "true natural" beef.
The average consumer probably doesn't even know that the above is the government's definition of "natural." When they see "natural" on a food product, they have a far different idea of what it should entail. As such, food labels such as "natural" and "organic" can deceive the public who fail to understand what they actually entail, which differs from what they expect.
Brandt Beef conforms to the USDA definition, not a tough hurdle, but they go further, choosing not to use antibiotics and hormones, which is admirable. Eric Brandt originated their compost operation, earning the moniker "King Shit" among his family and friends. This manner of handling their waste is another admirable practice, especially considering how other farms have significant problems due to their great waste. In their alfalfa fields, they use ladybugs and owls as more natural means of pest control. Despite these practices, there are still occasions when they feel the need to spray pesticides, which prevents them from becoming an organic farm.
Eric stated that "Being responsible and balanced is the key." An admirable philosophy. Eric also stated that Brandt was a pioneer in raising natural beef, beginning about 20 years ago, foregoing the use of antibiotics and hormones. Because of this pioneering, they consider themselves a "true natural," unlike other "natural" cattle farms which still use those products on their cattle. Under the USDA definition of natural, these farms can still use antibiotics and hormones. However, is this sufficient to earn Brandt the designation of "true natural?"
For a time, Brandt Beef used to raise cattle for other companies, such as Whole Foods, but in 2001 they decided to create their own brand. About 30% of their cattle is now sold under their own name. How many cattle do they raise? Eric asked that I did not report the number of cattle that they raise so I will not do so. I can report though that Brandt is a feedlot operation, and such operations due have their critics and potential problems. The maternal side of the Brandt family is involved in the dairy industry.
What do the Brandt cattle eat? The website mentions that the cattle are fed a diet of alfalfa and corn, though no specifics are given. Eric told me that the diet consists of approximately 15% alfalfa with about 10% sugar beet pulp (not mentioned on their website) and possibly some other ingredients too. Corn is the major ingredient in their diet, and they are fed this diet over the course of a year or so.
There is some disagreement over whether feeding cows corn is natural or not, and there appears to be some scientific evidence that a cow's stomach needs to adjust to large amounts of corn or could potentially have health problems. That requires that corn consumption be regulated to protect the health of the caste. This is partially why some feedlots use antibiotics, to handle illnesses related to corn consumption. Corn is also what brings excellent marbling to beef, and what makes it taste as good as it does.
Now we get to foundation of my issue with Brandt Beef calling themselves "true natural", which centers on their use of corn. I value transparency and honesty, and definitions are extremely important to me. If you wish to make bold statements in your marketing, then you better ensure you live up to them. The average consumer doesn't understand many of the nuances of legal definitions of words such as natural, organic or cage free. They see these terms in the most common way, something marketers understand and use to take advantage of those perceptions.
If you want to be known as "true natural," then I have high expectations for what that should entail. With Brandt Beef, I do not believe they live up to those expectations. The main problem I have with Brandt Beef is that they feed their cows GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. You won't find that fact listed on their website, though I think it should be. It is an issue of great importance to many consumers, as well as a topic of great controversy. Though Brandt purchases a small percentage of non-GMO corn, Eric indicated that it is far more expensive and difficult to obtain.
In an informal poll on Facebook and Twitter, no one believed that beef from GMO corn fed cattle should be labeled as "true natural." I also do not believe that beef from cattle fed GMO corn should be labeled as "true natural." For Brandt Beef to truly be transparent and up-front, they should be informing the public on their website that their cattle are fed GMO corn. The public has a right to know such information.
Currently, the U.S. has about 170 million acres of transgenic crops, especially soy and corn. About 90% of all the corn grown in the U.S. is now GMO corn. Consequently, non-GMO corn is likely more expensive and difficult to obtain. That is not an excuse though to conceal the fact that a company uses GMO corn. GMO crops have been genetically modified to make them more resistant to pests or tolerant of herbicides. Interestingly, the use of GMO crops has increased herbicide use 7% since 1996 due to new herbicide resistant superweeds.
On the other hand, Europe has been very resistant to the use of GMO crops, and the field is heavily regulated. They grow only a small percentage of GMO crops as compared to the U.S. In the U.S., food does not have to be labeled as GMO, and that has become a political hot button topic, indicating the passion of many against GMO food.
There is much skepticism about the safety of consuming GMO food, as well as the effect of feeding GMO crops to animals that end up as food, especially as there are insufficient studies concerning its safety. As foods are not labeled as GMO based, it becomes far more difficult to track and study negative reactions. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine has mentioned some of the potential health hazards of GMO food. Far more studies are necessary to assess the potential dangers. It is clear that many people object to GMO food and don't consider it natural. I find it disingenuous for a company to tout itself as "true natural" when it feeds its cattle GMO corn.
Brandt Beef does plenty that is admirable, and is better than many other cattle operations, however I believe they could and should be better, especially if they want to claim to be "true natural." They should be more transparent in their operations, owning up on their website to their use of GMO corn. And if they truly wish to be "true natural," I believe they should completely end the practice of using GMO corn.