The best way to know where your beef comes from is to order directly from a farmer. But not everyone can afford to pay farmers’ market prices or to front hundreds of dollars for a cow share and then try to fit all the vacuum-sealed meat into their freezer. For this reason, a host of online resources are now available to ship the most sustainable meats directly from family farms to consumers’ doors. All in manageable quantities at a reasonable price.
Take Seattle-based Crowd Cow. The start-up stole the scene in 2015 with $2 million in venture capital investments and a first-of-its-kind model for selling meat online. In effect, Crowd Cow founders Ethan Lowry and Joe Heitzeberg used their tech backgrounds to bring the ranch to the internet. Crowd Cow offers whole animals for sale in online “events,” one cow at a time—in retail-cut packages—until they’re sold. They also provide customers with the full story of the ranch and the animals. “We practically give you the address,” said Lowry.
While the technology and finance worlds swoon over these entrepreneurs, they also set up an extra layer of mediation between the producer and buyer. And, given the ongoing potential for greenwashing in the food sector and the questions surrounding animal welfare in the USDA Organic certification, it’s worth asking: Can we trust the meat we buy online?
Both Crowd Cow and another startup, Butcher Box, have been called out on social media recently for failing to live up to their mission statements, raising questions about transparency in the new digital food economy. Civil Eats followed up with the companies and sustainable meat advocates to learn more about some of the challenges and contradictions involved in trying to source sustainable meat for a profit in today’s economy.
Supply and Demand in the Digital Meat Economy
Concerns about the overall lack of transparency among well-funded startups led Rebecca Thistlethwaite, farmers program manager for the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network at Oregon State University and author of The New Livestock Farmer, to strike up a conversation with the customer service department at Butcher Box in June.
Butcher Box is an online meat subscription service that launched in 2015 on a Kickstarter platform to help consumers learn more about where their beef comes from. According to their site, the company sells seven-to-10-pound boxes of 100 percent “grass-fed and grass-finished beef” from “various farms in the Midwest.”
But when Thistlethwaite initiated a chat on the site to find out where the meat comes from, a customer service representative told her that the information was “proprietary.”
In follow up emails with founder/CEO Mike Salguero, she learned that some Butcher Box grass-fed meat was coming from Midwest, and some was coming from Australia. She related the incident on her blog, Honest Meat, adding: “If they’re proud of their company and the meat they sell, they should be proud to name [their sources] on their website. It is really that simple.”
In a conversation with Civil Eats, Salguero explained that Thistlethwaite’s negative customer service interaction was the result of the company growing big really fast. “At that point, we were shipping 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of grass-fed beef a month,” he said. And he described a larger issue facing every e-food company promising sustainably raised meats, especially grass-fed beef: sourcing a reliable supply.
Outsourcing the Grass-Fed Beef Supply
While beef consumption has declined in the U.S., the grass-fed beef market is growing dramatically. According to a recent study by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture (based on Nielsen data), retail sales of grass-fed beef has grown by 100 percent every year for the past four years.
Marilyn Noble, communications director for the American Grass-fed Association (AGA), says that the market’s momentum is undeniable. And with that opportunity comes the potential for deceptive practices. Several sources we spoke to mentioned the practice of feeding cattle manufactured grass pellets rather than keeping them on actual pasture, for example.
“There really isn’t anything out there that guarantees that consumers are getting what they think they’re getting,” said Noble.
In this muddled market, newcomers like Salguero have taken sourcing grass-fed beef into their own hands, which is how he ended up in Australia. “Beef from Australia is considered to be higher quality and better for you than the majority of meat from America,” he wrote in a blog post on the company website shortly after Thistlethwait’s critique, citing the country’s grading system and animal welfare standards.
In a conversation with Civil Eats, Salguero acknowledged that the cost savings is also one of the benefits. “Australian beef is way cheaper, probably 20 percent cheaper,” he said. And plenty of other retailers, including Blue Apron, are importing grass-fed beef, according to Noble from AGA. “It doesn’t surprise me that companies are sourcing their meat offshore,” she said. “They’re just doing what Kroger, Trader Joe’s, and Albertson’s have been doing for years.”
The trouble is, since Congress repealed the country of origin labeling law (COOL) at the end of 2015, there’s no way of know whether the beef, pork, and turkey is imported unless the company chooses to come clean on its website.
Grass-fed beef advocates take issue with imported beef, citing the carbon footprint and displacement for American farms. “There’s so much grass-fed in this country that’s so good and would probably fill the niche,” said Noble. However, the cost of production for domestic grass-fed beef is higher because of the vast consolidation in the meat industry has caused a “distribution bottleneck” for small-scale producers.
Noble believes that companies like Butcher Box could help re-establish new distribution networks and provide the reliable supply that these companies demand—but to do that, they would probably have to pass some of the increased price on to consumers.
Salguero believes that the scuttlebutt over imported beef is misplaced. Regardless of the source, he says all grass-fed is better than the factory-farmed alternative. “Here’s the problem: 98 percent of the beef sold in the United States is corn-fed from a feedlot,” Salguero said.
From Building Software to Shaping an Industry
Crowd Cow has faced similar challenges. Sustainable meat advocates, like butcher and author of a James Beard Award-winning series of butchery books Adam Danforth, followed the company’s ascent beginning when it launched in 2015. He was intrigued by the company’s mission and crowdfunding model to create “something outside the [dominant] paradigm.” Yet he was skeptical about a venture capitalist-funded business upselling and “fetishizing” meats that were disconnected from their local food systems.
“I didn’t feel like it ever was a proposed system that would have a net benefit for those who are trying to improve meat accessibility,” Danforth told Civil Eats.
Last spring, he noticed a major shift when a Crowd Cow email announced a sale for grain-finished beef from a Washington farm. This is not the same as beef from a feedlot, but some purists decry finishing a ruminant animal on grain, period. Although Danforth is not in that camp, he said, “It wasn’t in the original model or the mission of the company.” But the major blow came when Crowd Cow sold Kobe beef direct from a farm in Japan this last June.
Sustainable meat advocates were quick to point out on social media that Kobe beef is not local, sustainable, or humane due to the animals’ continuous confinement. Diana Rodgers, a nutritionist and author who initially championed Crowd Cow to her followers, took note. “I don’t have that much of an issue if a company is selling meat from Japan,” she told Civil Eats. “But for the ethical food community concerned about sustainability and ethical treatment of animals, the vendors need to live up to that expectation.”
For their part, the Crowd Cow founders pled inexperience and were shocked by the social media blowback. “We started it as a local little company,” said Heitzeberg. “We came at this as software people,” added Lowry. But the pair also asserted that nearly all of their sales have involved U.S. beef from small-scale farms, and they state that the response from their customers and producers has been nothing but positive.
“We see ourselves showing people that beef is not a commodity, and that is going to fuel the success of the smaller farms that have been lost in the traditional production system,” said Lowry.
While Crowd Cow would not share specifics on company growth, they reported that at the end of 2016, 65 percent of their sales were within 10 miles of Seattle. Nine months later, they were shipping to all 48 states.
On the supply side, independent ranchers are also seeking out Crowd Cow. “We’re giving the producer a viable business model,” Lowry said. And the relationships may translate into the incremental change that advocates like Danforth are seeking.
For mission-driven entrepreneurs, one of the hardest lessons is that delivering local food on a massive scale is harder than it looks. Like several other similar startups, Amber Lewis’s Charlotte, North Carolina-based prepared meals company, grew out of her own personal Paleo diet in 2011. Initially, Lewis scrambled to find enough locally sourced meats in her area. “Our protein source has run the gamut of every scenario you can imagine to get sustainable meat in our door,” she said.
But when she rebranded four years later to become The Good Kitchen with a national launch, she recognized the need to find producers beyond her local area and to change the company messaging as well. “I think it’s about transparency and calling out when you’re making changes,” Lewis said. “I think that consumers understand that changes are going to happen.”
“Sustainability has to look like a lot of different things if it’s going to take hold,” said Rodgers. “If buying directly from a farmer doesn’t work for some people, [ordering online] may be a better model than buying [conventional] meat from a grocery store.”
Buying meat online involves a certain level of trust and transparency. And while many online meat businesses appear to be eschewing certification programs, such as AGA’s grass-fed standards, Global Animal Partnership, and third-party animal welfare labels, it’s tough to say whether that trend will last. As Marilyn Noble sees it, existing trusted labels are useful tools, even for “young guys coming up with these disruptive ways of getting food into people’s hands.”
Either way, Lewis from the Good Kitchen says she sees consumers are getting smarter. “They’re reading labels, they’re doing research and they’re mission-driven with their money,” she says. Indeed, that fact what will likely ensure that the market for alternative meat continues to expand. The question is how domestic producers will flourish along with it.