A growing number of consumers concerned about what’s fed to the animals they eat are expressing their beef with the meat industry.
From chain grocery stores to local farms, suppliers are responding by offering a larger selection of meats without additives. And more farmers are rejecting the use of hormones and antibiotics in their animals raised for consumption.
“Hormones are unnecessary,” said Mike Knoll, owner of Columbia’s Bonne Femme Farm. “It’s not the right way to raise animals.”
Marylou Mayse, who like Knoll is a regular vendor at the Columbia Farmers’ Market, said her farm didn’t choose to abstain from hormone use for ethical reasons. Rather, she is rushing to keep up with demand. Sales of her hormone-free meat products have doubled in each of the past three years.
“I don’t think hormones are harmful. Some people do, so we’re trying to fill that market,” said Mayse, a co-owner of Sho-Me Farms in Columbia.
The use of hormones to aid in the growth of cattle, chickens and other animals has been debated for decades.
The Missouri Beef Industry Council, based in Columbia, is the trade group responsible for the “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” advertising campaign. The council insists growth hormones found in beef are not harmful to humans.
“Hormones are way overblown,” said Steve Taylor, the group’s executive director. “There are more hormones in foods other than beef; for instance, there’s more estrogen in coleslaw.”
Meat that is free of hormones isn’t necessarily organic. To qualify for that designation, the animal must be fed products free of chemicals.
Locally, demand for hormone-free meat appears high. Schnucks and Gerbes each carry at least one brand of meat without hormones. Hy-Vee features several varieties from local and out-of-town sources.
Tim Walker, owner of Greystone Farms in Fayette, described people who choose to eat meat without hormones as a “niche” market. He pointed out the availability of such products in farmers’ markets, grocery stores and natural food stores such as Clovers Natural Market.
The added cost of organic, locally grown or hormone-free food can be a deterrent. But for Christine Dixon, a regular customer at the farmers market, it can be worth the extra expense.
“They carry something I like,” she said of places that sell hormone-free meat. “It’s a better quality than what’s at stores. This has more flavor, a better texture.”
The Missouri Beef Industry Council takes a different view on whether hormones affect the quality of meat.
“The difference between animals who have never been given additional hormones compared with animals on feed lots is like three blades of grass on 100 football fields — there’s no detectable difference,” Taylor said.
For local author Ken Midkiff, the detectable difference does not lie in the meat’s taste but in mass production.
In his first book, “The Meat You Eat,” published in August, Midkiff draws a parallel between environmental problems and the mass production of meat, milk and eggs. Although he said he has concerns about the production of meat from all manufacturers, he encourages people to pick the least damaging option.
“I don’t claim for a moment that small-scale agricultural doesn’t contaminate the environment, but small farmers make small messes; huge farmers make huge messes,” he said.
Taylor said he looks at larger-scale production as a more mechanized way to monitor the production of meat.
“The management on large farms can sometimes be more intensive than on smaller farms,” he said.
Midkiff said the size of the large companies is the reason for adverse effects on the environment.
“The claim of the big industrial corporations who’ve gotten into producing meat and eggs is it’s possible to manage these things in an environmentally sensitive manner,” he said. “I maintain that it’s not. Size alone makes them unmanageable.”
He says choosing to buy food grown on a smaller scale, such as local, organic and free-range products, is preferable.
“My concern is for the people who do go to the supermarket and pick eggs and meat off the shelf without consideration of how those animals were raised or treated,” he said. “The book is aimed at consumers, so if they choose to eat meat, they can do so in an informed fashion.”
Midkiff’s book has been landing on bookshelves across the country, but it hasn’t yet reached the desk of the Missouri Beef Industry Council.
“I’m afraid to open the book; I’m afraid of what’s in it,” Taylor said.