It seems like every major company is going antibiotic-free with chicken these days. It’s a seismic shift for the poultry industry, but it’s a win-win: less chance of multi-drug-resistant superbugs, all while putting more money in suppliers’ pockets. What seems a little weird, then, is why there’s no similar trend with beef.
The reason, The Wall Street Journal posits today, is because cattle ranchers have no need. The price of red meat has reached historic highs for the past year, and it hit a record average of $6.16 per pound in July. Meanwhile, places like Chipotle have raised prices on steak, and the nation just barely escaped a brisket shortage. This means suppliers are having record years, too, and have almost no reason to change what they’re doing.
There’s more at play, as the Journal points out: Cattle generally live a year or more before slaughter — much longer than chickens, which can consider six weeks a good run. This means cows have way more time to catch illnesses requiring medication. Also, raising livestock presents more variables since suppliers typically buy cattle from numerous middlemen, while chicken producers can get thousands of birds from one farm. All-natural beef may also go for as much as 80 percent more per pound, but it comes at other costs like greater overhead, more paperwork, and expensive audits to prove the beef is what the supplier claims it is.
Not the rosiest picture for people wanting more organic beef in the world, or for those who simply aren’t fond of mutant strains of shigella. The one bit of good news, though, is that antibiotic-free beef currently accounts for a paltry 5 percent of the market, but demand is growing fast enough to at least get some ranchers’ attention — sales of stuff labeled natural are up a quarter in the past year.