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Is ‘climate-friendly’ beef all sizzle?

Gonzalo Guzman
via Pexels

Tyson Foods, one of the country’s major meat companies, recently introduced a product line called Brazen Beef, which promises a more climate-friendly steak from an animal that’s been treated with care.

Tyson claims that Brazen Beef, which has been certified as “climate-friendly” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requires fewer greenhouse gases to produce than typical beef products.

Arielle Samuelson, climate reporter for the newsletter Heated, looked into those claims and spoke to the Texas Standard about what she found.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So how much more climate-friendly is Brazen Beef than your typical beef product, according to Tyson? 

Arielle Samuelson: Well, Tyson says that their beef produces 10% less greenhouse gas emissions than your regular beef that you find in your grocery store. And they also say that the USDA approved them as the first climate-friendly beef. So I decided I had to look into that.

Well, what does the USDA have to say about how they go about approving climate-friendly beef?

You know, that is the part that is still a mystery to me, because they are very clear about how they stamp organic products; there’s a whole system of rules in place. But as we investigated, it became harder and harder to find what they qualified as climate-friendly.

Now, that’s interesting, because didn’t the USDA give Tyson a lot of money to come up with – or at least work toward coming up with – more climate-friendly beef?

Yes. So that is one of the things that caught my interest, which is that Tyson was the lead partner on what they call a climate smart project. So they were given $61 million by the USDA for this, and they’re planning to roll it out with a bunch of different partners, including McDonald’s.

So they give this money to Tyson – let me make sure I follow this – and Tyson introduces this product. But the USDA can’t or won’t tell you how exactly they come up with this being more climate-friendly?

I would say that I could not find it anywhere on my own, and they did not respond to our request for comment. So it’s still a mystery, is what we said. And the USDA grant to Tyson is part of a larger climate-friendly project, so they’re giving out millions of dollars to many different agricultural producers.

What about Tyson? Have they explained the process by which it, you know, raises cattle and produces beef products with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions? 

They say that they are tracking their cattle from pasture to production. So they’re saying from the very beginning they look at what they’re feeding their cattle, they look at how they raise them, and then they look at how they package the beef that comes out of their cattle. But I could not find anything that said exactly how they’re trying to cut down on the emissions that cattle produce, because the greatest producer of emissions in beef are cattle actually burping methane.

Hmm. Yeah, I’m curious as to how they go about tracking all of this, exactly. And for that, for that matter, isn’t Tyson more a meat packer? I mean, do they raise their own cattle?

Yes, that’s a really good point. So Tyson is the meat packer, and they work with cattle ranchers all over the country. And one of the ways they say they’re going to track their cattle is they’re working with a specific partner called Adams Land and Cattle, which is one of the largest buyers of cattle in the United States. So Adams Land and Cattle says that they create their own data tracking system to measure the emissions from their own cattle. But it sounds to me like there could be a conflict of interest there – there could be – because their business is cattle, so they are trying to sell you this product.

Is Brazen Beef from Tyson available in stores yet? And if so, is it more expensive than other types of beef?

You know, I don’t know because there was no evidence that it had been released in stores yet, but it was rolled out and introduced at the annual Meat Conference in March. So they’ve unveiled it and they have an entire website sort of dedicated to letting you know more about how you can help be part of the Brazen Beef program – but not where you can buy it.

How much does this sound like greenwashing to you – or is that even a thing in this context? 

It is. And I’m glad you asked, because that’s why I started my investigation, because this could either be something that is very good for the environment because it helps cut down on one of our largest sources of emissions in agriculture. Or it could just be a label that a large meatpacker is slapping on their beef when it is in fact still the same climate-unfriendly beef.

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