By Christine Arena
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The recent surge of leaked undercover videos showing inhumane and unsafe food industry practices adds fuel to a growing trend. Meat companies are being forced into a state of transparency, whether they like it or not. If they have something to hide, well, too bad for them.

To this day many meat companies hide their operations behind glossy marketing campaigns. Slick photos of beautiful rolling hills, fluffy chickens and healthy cows grazing out of doors are often a two-dimensional front for feedlots and suffering animals that are force-fed high carbohydrate diets and that rarely see the light of day.

Increasingly, that two-dimensional strategy backfires. People discover the truth, and the company ends up spending millions of dollars trying to repair the damage done. Some companies never manage to bounce back. For instance, after people discovered the inhumane treatment its cows were suffering and the health implications of its deplorable factory conditions, Westland/Hallmark Meat Company faced the largest meat recall in history and eventually shut its doors. Smithfield Foods still struggles with the negative press surrounding its Mexico operations, while Niman Ranch is losing market share, perhaps in part owing to founder Bill Niman’s own admission that the that company is not a ranch at all, but rather a factory, and that he himself no longer eats Niman Ranch products.

In the current age of social media, where truth rules, trust agents are king, and online videos spread like wildfire, reputations can’t be managed via press release. Meat companies are having to publicly explain their way out of tight spots, while activists are waging war, and more meat eaters are thinking twice before ordering their next meal. The climate has changed dramatically, and smart companies will face the music.

There is absolutely no question that the public demands radical change from the meat industry. The signs are everywhere: in award-winning films like Food,Inc., best-selling books like the Omnivore’s Dilemma – along with numerous web sites, activist movements and purchasing trends. You’d be remiss to dispute the evidence. The real question is: What is the change worth? If meat companies elevated their quality standards, would people be willing to pay more for the change?

A few weeks ago I decided to try and find out. I reasoned that it was impossible to answer questions like these without seeing and experiencing the desired change first-hand. I visited Hearst Ranch, the most humane, environmentally sustainable and high-quality meat operation that I could find in the United States.

Keep in mind, the overwhelming majority of meat produced in the United states and sold in stores comes from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The core objective of CAFOs is to cram as many animals into as small a space as possible in order to produce the highest output at the lowest cost. That’s how meat companies like Cargill, Tyson and Hormel Foods make so much money. CAFOs also produce significant environmental problems and help to spread diseases such as swine flu, avian flu, West Nile virus and bluetongue.

Hearst Ranch is the furthest thing from a CAFO that you could possibly imagine. Founded in 1865 by George Hearst, Hearst Ranch’s working cattle ranch sprawls over 80,000 acres, making it one of the largest working cattle ranches on the California coast. Though the photos displayed on the company’s web site are of the ranch itself – portraying its natural existence, biodiverse ecosystem and cowboy staff – they left me completely unprepared for what I experienced roaming the landscape, meeting the people and seeing the animals up close.

Like the flavor of its beef, Hearst Ranch is spectacular. Absolutely, pricelessly, indescribably beautiful. Thanks to one of the largest land conservation easements in California history, the Ranch will be forever preserved. Driving up and down its rolling hills, smelling the native grasses and taking in the majestic views, all I could think was, they should have sent a poet. Seriously, it might sound cheesy, but how many meat operations can you say that about?

Owing to the vastness of the Ranch, it took us 26 minutes before we could even find a cow. When we did finally come upon a small pack of eight animals at the top of a hill, we approached them slowly and respectfully. Cliff Garrison, Ranch Manager and my tour guide, turned the engine off. Rather than scatter, the animals remained completely calm, and a few even approached us.

They were beautiful creatures. Not long and thin like Angus cattle, but rounded and muscular with shiny coats and clear eyes. “Angus cattle were bred long and thin so that they could fit more animals into pens,” Garrison said. Just like seats on an airplane, I thought. Ah, the almighty dollar.

Hearst’s cattle are a breed apart. It doesn’t take an expert to identify healthy, happy animals living a low-stress life. The cows let Cliff handle them and seemed to like the attention. “Fast or excitement is usually not good with animals,” Garrison said.

Later that evening it was explained to me that, in addition to Hearst’s commitment to animal welfare, Garrison is himself rumored to have special powers. “We call him the cow whisperer,” joked another cowboy.

The staff at Hearst Ranch feels strongly that letting animals graze freely out of doors is the key to a healthy working landscape, to the quality of the beef produced, and to many of the problems now plaguing the meat industry. “This is the way that nature intended,” Garrison said. “This is how cowboys have been doing it for a hundred years.”

As Hearst Ranch points out on its web site, well-managed grazing increases the biodiversity of the grassland by fostering competition amongst a wide grange of grass species, thus sustaining both its herd and precious land resources.

While not every business will have the desire or foresight to invest in adequate land in order to take animals out of CAFOs, it is worth spelling out some of the benefits that models like Hearst’s offer to consumers:

Far Less Waste
The 238,000 CAFOs operating in the US produce an estimated 500 million tons of waste each year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. The European Union says that CAFOs are responsible for 18 percent of global warming. In contrast, the vast grasslands of Hearst Ranch host an unusually complex mosaic of vegetation. By rotating the animals through various pastures through the seasons, Hearst sustains that complexity, a practice that supports biodiversity, improves soil fertility, and eliminates the waste-management problems associated with CAFOs.

Much More Humane
There is probably no better life for an animal to live than the natural life that nature intended. Hearst cattle are living the dream, with free access to natural forages, fresh air and clean water – and very little human intervention. They have visibly lower stress levels and are humanely treated. They are never fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics and are never given growth hormones. All their lives, they have the freedom to roam. There’s an old cowboy saying at Hearst Ranch, which is: “go slow, get there faster.” This means that if you treat the cows gently and don’t push too hard, but rather allow them to find their natural way at their natural pace, you’ll be more successful. It would be great if more businesses thought this way.

Better Nutrition
Most beef cows in America are shot-up with medicine and raised on diets of grain, which boosts levels of E. coli in their guts and encourages the spread of disease. Grass-fed beef cows eat grass their entire lives, so they are healthier and the nutritional value they provide is significantly different. Grass-fed beef contains 10 times more beta-carotene, three times more vitamin E, and has three times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids than traditional beef. Grass-fed beef also contains three times more CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, which is another of the healthy fats that has been shown to be good at lowering so-called “bad” cholesterol, lowering the risk of diabetes, heart disease and various forms of cancer.

Superior Quality and Flavor
If you live near or visit San Francisco and crave a burger, I highly recommend heading over to Cafe Americano and ordering one of chef Paul Arenstam’s famous Hearst Burgers. No joke, this is the best burger that I’ve ever eaten. The flavor of Hearst’s beef is rich, robust and pure, with no fatty or greasy aftertaste. As one customer recently put it: “This is how beef is supposed to taste.” In the wine industry, the word “terroir” refers to the flavor imparted to the wine by the entirety of the property upon which the grapes are grown. The same principle applies to beef. The rich and robust flavor of Hearst’s beef comes from the nutrients that are themselves derived from the purity and diversity of the grasses that the cows eat their whole lives.

The bottom line is that Hearst Ranch beef, and high-quality grass fed beef in general, is worth more. Not just a little more – a lot more.

Personally, I am willing to pay 50 to 80 percent over the commodity prices coming from the big meat companies, but be much more selective about which companies I buy my meat from, and eat meat less often. But maybe that’s just me. My sense is that if the benefits of sustainably and humanely raised meat were communicated properly – if more people could see and experience what I did a few weeks ago – then perhaps others would pay more too, and would take steps to do business with select companies like Hearst Ranch.

Then, just maybe, the meat industry would elevate its standards.