Where does beef come from? Part 1 - A geographic perspective

The United States has the biggest grain-fed beef industry in the world, with several states taking the lead in production.

As much as people would like to believe they know, a vast majority of Americans could probably only say which grocery store their beef came from, as opposed to the geographic area it was raised in. Today, the grocery store grind can lull many into a sense of education about the food they buy and eat, but the reality is that the grocery stores generally only present consumers with labels that identify “organic” or a “product of the U.S.” But where exactly does our beef come from?

Most cattle that eventually make up the country’s beef supply are from within the United States, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, with roughly 8-20 percent coming from foreign sources, and most finite numbers landing closer to 8 percent. A majority of the foreign suppliers are surrounding countries like Canada and Mexico. Additionally, the U.S. and Canada both abide by a grain-fed program, making the products from both countries very similar. So, most of the country’s beef resources are quite local, though the USDA lists 12 countries altogether that can supply the US with raw beef product. With quarantine restrictions and transportation costs, imports from elsewhere may be difficult to execute in any event before also taking into consideration all supplying animals and facilities must meet USDA standards regardless of whether or not they are within U.S. borders.

From inside the United States, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where beef is produced, since beef is grown in almost every state in the country. However, the top states in beef sales in 2013 were Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, California and Oklahoma. In reality, it has become harder to track down geographically where beef, and other meats, come from but it is easier to identify one of four or five large processing companies that harvested the animal. In the past, grocery stores and fast food restaurants would get their supplies from hundreds of different local slaughterhouses and farms. Four meat suppliers controlled a little over 20 percent of the beef supply market in 1970 and today, four companies control more than 85 percent of the market. In order for this to be possible, feed lots now contain up to 100,000 head of cattle, according to an interview award-winning, investigative journalist, Eric Schlosser did with PBS.

Next, the process by which cattle becomes beef should be examined from a locational perspective to understand where exactly beef comes from. After birth, weaning and castration, a period of 2 to 8 months, cattle are sent out to pasture to feed on grass. Here, 25 percent of cattle will remain until slaughter and 75 percent travel to a feedlot, or large area where grain feed is available, until harvest. After 12-24 months, the cattle are harvested and the meat is sold to various retailers.

In addition to beef from U.S. states, Canada, Mexico and a few other foreign sources, many grocery stores make a point of supporting local farm business as well. Stores from around the state make an effort to bid on and purchase beef at county fairs, sometimes even selling their purchases in-store.

With Americans consuming 56.5 pounds of beef per person in 2013, it is obvious that beef is an important part of the American diet. The Michigan State University Extension supports and helps to organize local 4-H programs and promotes the use of local food sources.

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