A few months ago, I noticed a new brand at Berkeley Bowl, the local independent supermarket where I buy a lot of my meat and dairy. Western Grasslands, the beef I've been buying since becoming a born-again carnibore in 2002, had been replaced by something called Panorama Grass-Fed Meats.
The next time I saw the blue signs, at Whole Foods, I grabbed a brochure. I was reassured to learn that it was the same story under a new name, accompanied by all the reassuring buzzwords a guilty ex-vegetarian like me looks for: "raised naturally on family ranches … enjoying room to roam and grazing on grass and forage," no growth hormones or antibiotics, "sustainable farming practices," blah blah, yes yes.
But what did it really mean? Having been bitten recently by some wrong assumptions, I wanted more than a pamphlet. I wanted to be able to ask questions about the "natural" and organic beef business, how long the cattle were pastured, how they were finished (fattened before slaughter), and who and where those family farms were.
When I called up Panorama seeking answers, the aptly named Lori Carrion in sales and marketing was nice enough to arrange a phone interview with CEO Mack Graves. The following conversation is a transcript of our discussion, edited very lightly. I'm interested to hear what readers think of Panorama's philosophy and practices.
Carrion forwarded me Graves's letter to the USDA commenting on the agency's proposed definition of "grass fed" for a new label. The USDA usually publishes all or most of the letters it receives during the public comment period, but this time it got flooded, with 19,000, so has only published a handful. Since we refer to it in the interview, I'm posting Graves's letter here as a PDF; you might want to read it first.
Graves has been the CEO of Panorama/Western Grasslands for two years, and was with Coleman Natural Beef for five years before that, he told me. He was raised on a fruit farm in Washington State. On the phone, he had a medium-paced, no-bullshit kind of delivery — somewhere in between ranch hand and executive.
Why'd you change the name from Western Grasslands?
Well, the company was started by a couple of ranchers who had been raising cattle but who felt like they weren't getting rewarded for what they're doing, so they went into the niche of grass-fed. That's how we got Western Grasslands. But another company was using "grasslands beef" in their name prior to us, and they asked us not to use it. We agreed. It just didn't connote what we wanted to show people anyway.
So we went to this company and told them about us. God, we started out with over 800 names, got it down to 4 or 5, and we got everyone together and said, "What's sounds best?" And surprisingly, the cowboys and everybody else felt that Panorama said open spaces and grass-fed, so we chose that one.
What's Panorama's sales volume?
We don't like to give it out in dollars. Right now we're between 100-160 head of cattle per week, both natural and organic. We've been selling organic now for about four months.
Have sales increased much in the last few years?
Oh yeah. Sales have doubled every year for the last three years. There's a lot of interest. The organic thing is even driving it more. We have the organic only in Whole Foods right now. We have all the Whole Foods in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. We started in Whole Foods in late November of last year with the natural grassfed. And then in late May, we started transitioning them from the natural to the organic. They're opening new stores like crazy. [West Coast Trader Joe's outlets also sell the beef.]
Can you keep up with that kind of demand?
Yes. It took us a while to program everything in, but we know what stores are opening and when, so we'll go up another four or five head a week here in a few weeks, and then it goes up again at the end of the year.
What percentage of the business is organic right now?
That low? Is that because of how few acres of pasture you have certified?
That, and I like to tell people you put a bull with a cow and you get a steak 26 months later. Takes a little while to ramp these things up. We're going to grow, but we want to be sure we grow the right way. There are rules for organic you have to follow, and we don't want to get sideways on them.
How many ranchers are supplying Panorama?
We have 43 who supply us or have supplied us; we have a core of about 10 or 11 and we like to keep those guys around. We pay all of them a premium, but the ones that come back every year, we pay them a premium on top of that premium because we like to keep the same guys with us all the time. We know the cattle, we know their system, we know who they are, it's just a better deal all around.
A Panorama press release says the cattle are "raised on pasture for virtually their entire lives." What does "virtually" mean?
We have two distinct programs. For the "natural grass-fed," we bring the cattle into a finishing facility for the last 60 days and feed them a little bit of rice bran and almond hulls, to get a consistent product.
For the organic, we bring them into a finishing facility and feed them a 100% grass hay ration. Grass just isn't available year round. So we farm or harvest the grass, store it, and then feed it to them the time of the year that the grass isn't available. Particularly in the winter, when you'll just see them pawing at the ground. We want a consistent product year round. We know for the last 60 days we're giving them this grass hay that we've harvested, we know it's going to be a consistent beef. You have to have consistency. You can't have a tough steak one day, and a not-tough steak the next day.
With the natural, we still bring them in, feed them a ration that's 95% grass hay, the other 5% is rice, bran, and almond hulls. Within the USDA definition, that can certainly be called grass-fed already, but we're transitioning the natural to totally grass-fed as well.
We really see our future on the organic side, even though it's a slow growth, slow build. We go out and show some of these organic ranches, and we deal with a lot of small ones, and tell them there's a premium for the organic over natural or conventional, there's a premium for grass-fed organic over that.
How many finishing facilities are there?
Four — one in Susanville, one near Chico, one down near Bakersfield, and one we're probably not going to use much anymore in Winnemucca.
So you bring the cattle raised on Washington and Oregon ranches to California as well?
At what age are they slaughtered?
We slaughter most of them at 16-18 months. Which means on grass, you're not going to get as heavy an animal as you would if they were grain fed, so we're slaughtering at 1,050 to 1,100 pounds. A conventional animal's going to be 1,250. We have to make sure that this product is going to be tender. We do that two ways. First, with the genetics — our whole program is Angus-based genetics, because we know that's going to grow an animal that's going to be tender, and No. 2, the age of the animal. When you feed cattle grain, which is corn usually, you're going to get a lot of intramuscular fat, and that helps on the tenderness side, and some people like that flavor. But we don't get that. When we harvest an animal at 1,100 pounds, we'll get a carcass weight of about 55-57% of the live weight. Whereas in a cornfed animal, you're going to get a 62-63% yield.
Because they’ve packed on a lot more fat on the frame.
More fat, exactly. There's more surface fat, there's fat within the muscle, and there's what's called KPH, a lot of fat around the kidney, the pelvis, and the heart. Maybe you don't want to know this — when you see a [cornfed] carcass hanging, you see a lot more fat internally, because they just deposit more fat from a grain ration.
So 5% rice bran and almond husks in a ration can really make a difference in the tenderness?
Yes. It makes a difference in tenderness, and the flavor. But I just said, "Look, we're not selling rice-bran-and-almond-hull-finished beef, we're selling grass-fed beef." So we're phasing that out for the natural as well. The current USDA definition of grass fed is 80-20, in other words 80% of the animals' ration has to be grass, 20% can be anything else, which means you could feed them grain or anything! Well, we're only feeding them 5% of the rice bran and hulls, but the new definition — which we agreed with and supported with our comments — is 99%, and 1% can be something else.
You said in your letter to the USDA that grass-fed beef that "is a diet, not a lifestyle." What do you mean by that?
The reason we said that is, when you see the term "grass-fed," a lot of people said that consumers think it means they're out on pasture their entire life. Well they had no market research support for that. We said, "Look, grass-fed is one thing, if you want to have a free-roaming definition that's another thing, but we cannot raise these animals out on pasture and bring them straight off grass year round. So you can't restrict us and our business by saying you can only take them off pasture." We'll feed them 99% grass, in fact it will be 100% grass, but we have to bring them to a facility to do that for the last 30-60 days of their life. So that was our objection to the free-roaming part.
And the USDA has separated it out; "free roaming" will be another definition later on. "Grass-fed" refers to what was eaten. And we supported that, and we supported the 99% regulation.
So you don't think consumers are interested in the pasture aspect? Do you see it as a more a health-driven demand, that people want grass-fed beef because they think it's healthier and has the "better" kind of fat?
I don't think we know. What we know is as much or as little "scientifically based," with quotations around it, as anybody else would say. When we do demos, I ask people all the time, "What does grass-fed mean to you?" And like you said, they say it means health, and when I continue to ask them what they mean, "What do you know?" — well, they don't know. But that's a side issue. I say, "Do you think it means they're on pasture their whole lives? Do they have to eat grass their whole life or can they eat something else?" And people say, "It's got to be grass."
So that's my scientific type of research. This refers to what they eat. So if you want to say "pasture raised," that's a different thing.
It seems to me that when most people hear "grass fed," they don't think "feedlot."
No question about that. They think the opposite.
They do think panoramic, open grasslands, grazing cows. But under this definition, what's to stop a large meat company like ADM or Cargill from feeding grass hay to cattle in a CAFO, and calling the beef "grass fed"?
There's nothing prohibiting them from doing that.
So the label would be somewhat meaningless in terms of consumers having any expectation of grazing, unless it was labeled "grass-fed" AND "free roaming."
I think it's up to the company to describe, just like it was in natural and like it is to a degree with organic – I helped write the organic rule – it's up to the company that markets the beef to describe what they do.
And if Cargill or Archer Daniels wants to say they have a confined animal feeding unit that feeds grass only, and they never have the animals on pasture, they're going to have to describe that, or they're going to have to be compared to someone like us who says our animals are out there on pasture for the majority, for 80-90% of their life, and we bring them in and feed them grass only for the last month or two to get them a consistent product. And besides you can't use pasture all year round, and we do that to rotate pastures. Those other people are going to have to be compared to what we do.
I think it's more incumbent on the company, on those of us who are trying to market a product, to clearly describe what we do, within the rules of the law. The law can't be so prohibitive as to exclude people from commerce. That's my biggest complaint about all the rules and regulations.
But what does that mean for farmers who do raise their cattle on pasture year round? They're concerned that —
They can't. They can't do it and market a product year round. What they do is they kill for maybe two or three months a year and they freeze the product. Because I know every single one of them in California. And nobody can feed and market a fresh product year round.
Do you know Highland Hills Ranch?
Yeah. And as I said, that markets a consistent product year round.
So you don't believe consumers can be educated to understand that grass-fed meat has a season?
No. Let me ask you. You buy a steak in May and it's tender; you buy the same steak in November and it's going to be tough. What are you going to do? Most consumers will not buy something again after they have a poor eating experience. Believe me, I've been in the business a long time, and the first thing people buy food for is the taste. And you don’t want them to have to have a contest with their plate, trying to cut their meat.
Also, we're getting competition from Uruguayan imported organic grass-fed beef. And it's significantly cheaper than ours.
And that beef is pastured year round, right, not finished on grain?
I think so, but I'm not sure. I've been to Uruguay and Argentina, and I know there are some feedlots in Argentina, but I don't know about the Uruguayan product.
But you're saying it's impossible to get beef that tastes good year round without controlled finishing?
Yes, without controlled finishing or somehow making sure you get that same consistent product.
Look, this is the same argument we faced in organic. Some of the people who started the organic movement wanted to keep it a very cottage industry, where only very small producers could do it and they had to do it on their terms. They didn't want to see it grow. They didn't want people like Con-Agra involved, or anybody else involved in the organic business. Well, hey — Wal-Mart's probably going to be the biggest organic vendor in the U.S. and that's going to create a need that's going to be a lot of people entering into it. You've seen a lot of arguments, like Dean Foods having problems with the milk deal, well I can’t worry about that. All I can do is build a business here, based on the rules and regulations and try to emphasize that while having a consistent year-round product.
One last question — does Panorama make its list of suppliers public?
No, we don't. We had to for Whole Foods, we had to list every single rancher who we get cattle from, but we don't make that public. They say they'll visit a representative sample unbeknownst to us, whenever they want. They've inspected all the processing facilities and the finishing facilities already.
You've got to have some teeth in this, we don't just claim it. We are certified by Western Ranchers Beef. They have to visit the ranch, make sure the cattle meet the breed specificity, that the animals are individually ear tagged, have an ID on every animal so you know no hormones or antibiotics were ever administered, all of this has to be done by records and record keeping, plus the rancher has to verify it.
A lot of consumers are increasingly interested in seeing with their own eyes the way the meat is being raised. But that's not an option in this case, right? Your finishing facilities are not open to the public?
We've taken people to them.
Really? You have public tours?
If you want to go, we'd be happy to take you. We've taken a lot of people. Not many consumers, but almost all the retailers want to go out and tour them. We'll show anybody how we raise the cattle.