KANSAS CITY, MO. – Grass-fed beef is an exciting opportunity that continues to grow across the United States. In fact, according to IRI, from July 2020 to July 2021, US grass-fed fresh beef sales reached $776 million, an increase of 5% from the previous year.

That can be somewhat attributed to COVID-19. During the pandemic, consumers were spending a lot more time home cooking and discovering that they enjoyed doing it. As they explored meal options, many also put new emphasis on their family’s health and wellbeing as well as that of the environment. Grass-fed beef increasingly became a regular part of their shopping carts.

While many consumers were initially turned off by the taste of the grass-fed beef and poultry in the marketplace, citing a strong mineral flavor, today’s offerings are much improved and championed for their quality and taste.

“We are seeing a premiumization of grass-fed,” said John Tarpoff II, vice president of beef for Northglenn, Colo.-based Niman Ranch. “For too long, the grass-fed label alone was enough, but customers are learning that there are differences in quality and taste among the different brands.”

Niman Ranch initially planned to launch its 100% grass-fed program in 2021, focusing predominately on the restaurant community, but with the deleterious impact COVID had on the foodservice industry, the company’s launch has been relatively balanced between foodservice and retail.

“Our grass-fed is now offered at many of the country’s best steak houses, premium restaurants, and select retail establishments —many of which had not offered grass-fed prior to our introduction,” Tarpoff said. “In 2022, we will continue to build on our current business, while placing an emphasis on expanding our presence in retail, offering the added confidence that our grass-fed beef is enthusiastically endorsed by some of the most discerning beef customers in the country.”

Gaining in prominence

Kay Cornelius, general manager of Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Meats, Westminster, Colo., noted that the demand the category saw last year is certainly continuing in full swing in 2022.

“It is fascinating to see the retail side of it, with demand outpacing supply,” she said. “It’s something we see at Panorama. We can’t get enough steaks and different grinds into the hands of consumers fast enough.”

She noted that with so many consumers drawn to organic and grass-fed beef as a trusted source of their nutritional journey, products like this are just becoming more and more popular.

“The grass-fed beef category is higher in Omega 3, lower in fat and is a rich source of nutrient-dense protein, and that’s what a lot of people are looking for, whether it’s for weight loss, for their heart or just to better care for the environment,” she said. “Consumers want to know more about the companies behind these products.”

With that in mind, one of the things Panorama did was to put QR codes on their labels so consumers can scan them and get immediate transparency and learn more about the grass-fed process.

Sean Sáenz, senior director of meat and seafood operations for Encino, Calif.-based retailer Gelson’s Markets, has seen the grass-fed beef category rise substantially since the pandemic.

“In 2020, we saw an increase on the grass-fed segment, but in 2021, it leveled out considerably, but we’re still running 15-18% over 2019,” he said. “It’s my second-largest growth category behind organic chicken.”

Gelson’s was able to leverage a grass-fed program so it could offer its customers what they desired on almost all items in the department.

“I believe it will continue to grow and I see it getting bigger and bigger,” Sáenz said. “The pasture-raised poultry category is also increasing, and we just see customers who want to eat healthier and look for these sorts of products to feed their families.”

Rob Williams, Meat & Livestock Australia’s regional manager for North America, noted that within the grass-fed beef industry, True Aussie Beef stands out for its consumer-facing brand story and its ability to meet foodservice and retail sectors’ unique needs.

“The US is Australia’s largest importer of grass-fed beef, accounting for 45% of Australia’s chilled grass-fed beef exports,” he said. “American consumers are increasingly interested in grass-fed beef, but grass-fed beef currently only accounts for between 4% and 5% of the US beef market. We believe there is huge market potential for growth.”

The company’s research shows American grass-fed beef consumers are health-conscious, enjoy variety and seek a high-quality product. They associate grass-fed beef with being more natural and being of a higher quality. They also consider it to be better for the animal and their personal health.

Dana Ehrlich, chief executive officer and founder of Verde Farms, Woburn, Mass., noted the company has focused on offering 100% grass-fed beef since it was founded in 2005, because he believes consumers should have access to a product that’s better for themselves, the environment, and the animal.

“We work with retailers across the country to help them leverage the tremendous opportunity grass-fed beef offers on both the branded and private label side of the business,” he said. “Today’s consumer is more educated about their choices in the meat case, and we want to ensure our retail partners are not only meeting shopper demand but at the same time driving incremental unit sales and revenue.”

Brent Jarvis of US Wellness Meats, Canton, Mo., noted customers are becoming much more aware of the differences between healthier, sustainably raised foods and factory foods.

“There’s also an increased concern regarding chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, growth hormones, GMOs, etc.,” he said. “Sustainable/regenerative farming methods, holistic management, and a concern for the soil, water, air and other resources allows farmers to heal the land so it’s available for future generations.”

On display

At Gelson’s Markets, the grass-fed products are merchandised in their own module, with a green tray to help it stand out from the other beef products, which utilize a black tray. That has helped draw attention to the products, Sáenz noted.

Williams shared that the marketing board’s research shows the most important initial triggers for consumption of grass-fed beef are from the retail environment. And while advertisements and websites outside of the store are important, most experts agree that the retail environment is where grass-fed consumers make their decision.

“Consumers see grass-fed beef at the grocery store and rely on their own curiosity and past conversations with family and friends to make their purchase decision,” he said. “They want to know not just that the animals were cared for and raised extensively on pasture, but also that grass-fed cattle are sustainable and even improving the planet. They care if animals received antibiotics or hormones.”

Panorama’s Cornelius noted that stores no longer are putting grass-fed products in the corner of displays, but now are showcasing them front and center so people who want it can find it.

“What I’ve seen is an expanded presence in case-ready grass-fed products at eye-level,” she said. “We redesigned our [labels] so they have bright colors and track the eye to the section so consumers know they can get those items right there in their stores.”

Retailers have a variety of options to connect with their customers via in-store, online, loyalty programs, and print. Integrating grass-fed beef and calling out the attributes in these existing marketing channels is the easiest and most effective way to promote the category.

“Showing consumers how to prepare and enjoy grass-fed beef through demonstrations and recipes is also key, especially recipes that are attractive to those following burgeoning diets like keto and paleo,” Ehrlich said. “Cross-promotions developed with other healthier food categories can also be helpful. Not only will retailers benefit from increasing consumer awareness of 100% grass-fed and its positive health attributes, they will also be seen as forward-thinking by embracing customer sentiment and consumer demand.”

More traditional in-store tools such as case dividers, shelf talkers and participation in retailer-specific marketing and promotions continue to be central to communicating the benefits.

“Layering on digital and social media is an integral component as more and more consumers rely on these channels to influence their preference and purchase decision,” Ehrlich said.

Niman Ranch is spending quite a bit of time with its retail partners to help them differentiate the company’s grass-fed from other brands in the marketplace.

“Our retail partners tell this story through traditional means like educational brochures and shelf talkers, but also with more creative methods like QR codes on the meat case that drive consumers to our website to learn more about product differentiators,” Tarpoff said.

Jarvis recommends that retailers emphasize the positive qualities of the grass-fed meats.

“Grass-fed and pastured foods are nutritious and delicious,” he said. “The higher concentration of Omega-3 fats and CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acids) in grass-fed, grass-finished meats is heart and brain healthy. Plus, when consumers use their hard-earned dollars to support sustainable family farms, they’re helping rural communities, small family owned businesses, and the environment.”