Media reports indicate a heightened interest in grass-fed beef in the face of the first U.S. case of BSE. The rationale is that such cattle are at lower risk of infection because their forage diet is less likely to expose them to BSE risk factors.

That spike in interest in grass-fed programs is also evident among beef producers. Among comments registered in a reader survey conducted by BEEF Cow-Calf Weekly (see page 20), a handful of respondents said they intended to move toward grass-fed production to insulate themselves should another BSE case be discovered in the U.S.

Chris Calkins, a University of Nebraska animal science professor who has conducted consumer preference studies on grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef, agrees that media attention and sales of grass-fed beef seem to be spiking, at least in the short term. But, he adds, his studies have shown that most consumers prefer the taste of grain-fed beef.

“I think the risk of BSE is so low that I don't necessarily believe there's a significant decrease in risk going the grass-fed route,” he says.

According to a research review conducted by the University of California-Chico (UCC), grass-fed beef has more beta carotene, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids than conventional finished beef. Raising cattle on grass also boosts the level of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in the resulting beef. CLA is a fat believed to reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

But grass-fed beef also is more expensive. Grass-fed ground beef, for instance, sells for $1 more/lb. than conventional ground beef, and grass-fed steaks are double the price of conventional steaks, says UCC project leader Glenn Nader on the www.news.ucanr.org Web site. That price premium has tended in the past to limit users of such products to health-conscious, high-income consumers.

“It's too soon to know whether this interest in grass-fed beef is a short-term blip or an indication of a more sustained kind of sales,” Calkins says. “But I've been pleased that the U.S. population understands that the risks are miniscule and we haven't lost much demand for conventional beef as a result.”