Gone are the days when diners were oblivious about where their food was coming from. Today’s consumer is all about food transparency and often makes their dining decisions based on where the food is being sourced.
Even though this is the case, the meat industry seems hesitant to cater to eater’s increasing interest in sourcing.
"It's now harder to find out where your beef or pork was born, raised and slaughtered," wrote "The Associated Press" in January. "After more than a decade of wrangling, Congress repealed a labeling law last month that required retailers to include the animal's country of origin on packages of red meat. It's a major victory for the meat industry, which had fought the law in Congress and the courts since the early 2000s."
This is frustrating for both consumers and operators trying to source quality meat and being aware of its origin.
For this reason, among others, the startup Crowd Cow is gaining traction. The concept is easy. Multiple people pitch in to buy a cow. Once the cow’s shares are all claimed, the exact cuts you selected and the quantity of grass-fed meat is delivered directly to you from the Engle Family Farms in Whidbey Island, Washington.
As of right now, the company ships to Washington, California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming, South Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, and North Dakota and only ships beef. But, there are plans in the works to expand everywhere and offer a wider portfolio of meats.
“Very soon, Crowd Cow will source beef and ship orders everywhere in the country. This is our focus for the early part of this year, but we’re also excited about adding other types of natural products and enhancements that our customers have asked for. Since day one customers have been asking us to sell ethically-raised pork, chicken, fish and other meats,” said Joe Heitzeberg, co-founder & CEO of Crowd Cow.
We sat down with Heitzeberg to learn more about how his company is providing an innovative alternative to the industrial beef supply chain.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the concept of Crowd Cow was born?
Heitzeberg: My co-founder Ethan and I have a friend who purchases beef every year from a local farm and then brags about how good it is. We asked how we could get in on that and he explained we’d need to buy an entire animal’s worth (over 500 lbs of meat), drive a truck out there and that we missed the harvest so we’d have to wait a year. Neither of us wanted to get a meat freezer or go through that much hassle -- but we wanted beef like that.
Ethan suggested that we “crowdfund a cow” so that 40 to 50 people could each get 10 pounds. It seemed like a good idea so we found a farm, built a site, emailed 100 friends and sold out the very first cow in 24 hours. That’s how Crowd Cow was born.
How do you select the ranchers?
Heitzeberg: Crowd Cow partners with ranchers that follow ethical and sustainable cattle-raising practices. The vetting process starts with a phone conversation where we collect reams of information about their history, their breeding practices and how the animals are cared for. We ask about the grazing land allocated to their herd, how they grow their grass and how the animals are fed and treated. We’re looking to make sure that the herd has ample grazing land, is never fed growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics, and is given the most peaceful, calm life possible.
If it looks like a farmer fits our bill, we then schedule time to visit their farm, walk the land and see how the animals are cared for. And of course, we sample the beef to measure taste, tenderness, and marbling. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it actually results in a higher quality, more tender meat.
Who are your customers?
Heitzeberg: It’s anyone who appreciates a good steak and appreciates knowing their dollars went toward people that are dedicated to quality (instead of, say, the middleman and overhead of your typical retail environment.)
One unique aspect of Crowd Cow is that customers are able to pick the exact cuts they want. We also dry-age our beef for a minimum of 2 weeks and individually pack all cuts in sous-vide ready vacuum-packs. These are things that traditional retail and other online services don’t offer. It’s hard to pull off, but it makes a huge difference in quality, so we do it.
Beef is an $80+ billion-dollar market. We think everyone would rather buy this beef instead of industrialized beef, but the choice and convenience just hasn’t existed until Crowd Cow.
And what do they like about it?
Heitzeberg: Eating ground beef from a single animal that was raised to produce steaks and which was dry-aged is practically, an out-of-body experience. Contrast this with industrial beef at the grocery store which is never dry-aged, often contains fillers and reportedly is made from an average of 50+ animals. You can’t find ground beef like ours in stores or online -- it’s unique to our direct-from-farm, whole-animal approach.
They also love the convenience. With Crowd Cow, you can select the exact cuts you want (down to the ounce) and get everything delivered to your door. We don’t force a subscription or deliver a flat-rate “mystery-box-of-variety-meat.” We’re taking a process that’s usually incredibly inconvenient and making it really easy.
How is technology an important component to the startup?
Heitzeberg: Independent producers today face a choice: sell your yearlings at auction for very little money, or sacrifice your weekends at a local farmer’s market. Crowd Cow provides something they’ve never had before: a marketplace to sell to anyone, anywhere and a platform to ship orders across the country. As a result, small producers can grow and become more profitable and everyone, everywhere gets access to a higher quality product.
Technology makes this all possible, and in most cases, we’re bringing technology to the local producer supply chain for the first time. From barcoding to pricing to computing how much dry ice to pack in the box -- technology is the critical glue that makes it all work.
What does the future of the meat industry look like?
Heitzeberg: The fastest growing segments of the beef industry are grass-fed, antibiotic-free and organic beef. And the internet has changed how people shop for everything. We expect these trends to continue and to be a huge benefit to independent producers everywhere.
Consumers are becoming better educated about the downsides of industrial farming to animals and the environment. They’re also becoming much more informed about how the food we eat impacts our health. As they become more and more aware that the meat they buy in the supermarket is probably raised with growth hormones and antibiotics, they’re seeing it as less appealing.
Unfortunately, a convenient alternative to the traditional industrial beef supply chain hasn’t existed. With Crowd Cow, people are finally able to purchase from independent producers, learn all about their farm and practices and complete their purchase without leaving the couch.
By creating a digital market-place we can offer up a level of choice, transparency and convenience that no grocery store, farmers market or corner butcher can offer, and we can service the entire country.