Do your homework if you want grass-fed meat
Though it started as a small Crystal River Valley operation, the Carbondale-based Crystal River Meats is now the biggest producer of grass-fed beef and lamb in Colorado. But the company has had some real battles to overcome in the grass-fed livestock industry.
You want to get a hold of some straight-forward grass-fed American beef? It’s not as simple as reading the label.
Crystal River Meats, run by the Jacober family, has seen remarkable growth since about 2010. Originally started in the Crystal River Valley with a few cattle, the company’s operation has expanded dramatically in recent years, and its main property of about 7,000 acres has been in the San Luis Valley since 2014. The company still runs cattle on Forest Service leases in Coal Basin west of Redstone and in Eagle County, and its headquarters is in Carbondale. Crystal River Meats also leases land in New Mexico for weaning calves.
Tai Jacober, the company’s CEO, describes the ranch as “more of an ecosystem for cattle” that just a farm.
In 2014, the company spent a lot of time researching agricultural land that made business sense for a large commodity farm, said Jacober. They eventually landed on the San Luis Valley in central southern Colorado. In the San Luis Valley, the livestock graze on a variety of crops, including oats, rye grass, field peas, kale and radishes.
Their system of rotational grazing attempts to be ecologically beneficial in full circle. This is a system that benefits the soil, which then benefits the crops and then benefits the cattle and the environment overall. According to the company, the farm produces about 90 percent of the feed its cattle requires.
“Our goal was to try to be more local and try to keep it a small, sustainable business,” said the company CEO. “In agriculture, you have to be an economy of scale. So we quickly outgrew this valley, in terms of size, to make a living. And it’s still quite challenging to turn a profit,” he said.
“But it’s been exciting. We have a great team, and it’s fun to be on the forefront and leading the way in a new industry,” said Jacober.
Along its path to booming expansion, the company has had to battle an industry practically built to deceive customers, he said. There are some serious problems with the market, and they revolve around consumers not knowing what they’re actually getting.
A great deal of politics surrounds the industry, and Jacober said that has been one of the company’s biggest challenges.
Many companies trying to compete in the industry are selling products that are not what they claim to be, and the law allows these deceptive practices, he said. Jacober called it “label washing.”
Part of that battle is against the labeling requirements for “grass-fed” beef. There is no U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for grass-fed meat, said Jacober. Basically, if a rancher has spent any amount of time feeding the cattle grass, even if the bulk of its life it was not, that product can still be labeled grass-fed.
“There are a lot of big players who are feeding their cattle traditionally and still calling them grass-fed,” said Jacober.
A second battleground regards where your meat comes from, and how you would know that information.
With imported meat, there is no longer a requirement to label the meat by its country of origin. In 2015, Canada and Mexico successfully pressured the U.S. to remove its country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork. In fact, the packaging you’re looking at might even say it’s from the United States.
Meat is often imported to the United States in bulk form, then it is processed into smaller cuts here. That’s all a company has to do to call it a product of the USA, said Jacober.
About 80 percent of the meat products called grass-fed in the country are imported, he said. “And the consumer has no idea.” Once it’s shipped in, you can mislabel it as a U.S. product because it was manufactured in the U.S.
This is a problem, not just because it isn’t transparent, but because of the process that meat goes through to get here. Imported meat will generally come on a boat, and it’ll be at least 30 days from the time of slaughter until it gets to the U.S., so it has to be frozen, said Jacober. Some of these are coming from as far away as Uruguay and Australia into your national retail grocery stores, he said. “So there’s no transparency in what the consumer is really buying.”
Some legal efforts are underway to combat both issues.
Last month the Ranchers-Cattlemen Legal Action Fund, United Stockgrowers of America filed a lawsuit against the USDA over the country-of-origin labeling, and there are also lawsuits in play over “grass-fed” labeling requirements.
So what’s a consumer who just wants some grass-fed, all-American beef or other meat to do?
“The most important thing a consumer can do is look for third-party auditing,” said Jacober.
Crystal Valley Meats, for example, has the American Grassfed Association backing its products as grass-fed. To get that backing requires the producer to follow strict guidelines for animal welfare and diet, he added.
And if you want to support domestic meat producers, you can look for labels that explicitly state that the meat was born, raised and harvested in the U.S.
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