Navigating the complicated world of sustainable meat delivery

The marketplace for sustainable meat has moved online

Published August 15, 2021 6:59PM (EDT)

Raw osso buco meat on crumpled paper with salt, pepper and rosemary. (Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Raw osso buco meat on crumpled paper with salt, pepper and rosemary. (Natasha Breen/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Sustainable meat delivery companies claims about doing things differently around environmental impact, animal welfare, and health.

Shopping for 100% grassfed beef or pastured chicken used to mean seeking out a specialty butcher shop, visiting a farmers' market, or going straight to the source by stopping by a local farm.

While all of those (great) options are still available, the marketplace for sustainable meat has also moved online, with several companies now offering to deliver organic bacon and drumsticks (and often "sustainable seafood," too) directly to your door.

Unlike meat delivery outfits that sell commodity meat with nebulous promises of "premium" quality — think Omaha Steaks — these sustainable meat delivery companies primarily operate outside industrial channels and make bold claims about doing things differently around environmental impact, animal welfare, and health.

There's Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative in Arkansas and Porter Road in Tennessee. ButcherBox is so big it runs commercials on national television; Pre will ship you its grassfed steaks through its own site, but you can also order them on AmazonFresh. And after more people turned to delivery during COVID-19, even some individual small ranches started offering online sales and national shipping.

"[Selling online] has been a great tool for a lot of well-intentioned farmers and well-intentioned aggregators. Ordering meat online is not inherently bad…but transparency is super important," said Camas Davis, a butcher who co-founded the Good Meat Breakdown, a resource that helps consumers find and cook good meat, in response to increased interest in meat sourcing during COVID-19.

So if you're interested in clicking for chicken and there's no farmer standing in front of you to answer questions, what else do you need to know to make the right choice? After the recent revelations about fraudulent labeling of grassfed, organic beef at Belcampo, the question is even more timely. We talked to Davis and other experts and did some digging into the landscape of sustainable meat delivery to find out.

What is "good meat," and are these companies selling it? 

The thing that makes these questions so complicated is that there is no agreed upon definition of "good meat." At the Good Meat Project, Davis and her team focus on "some form of caring for land, animals, and people." It's intentionally vague, she said, because while they want to move animal agriculture towards the most advanced, regenerative methods, they also want the definition to be inclusive enough to acknowledge current realities, which often involve farmers and eaters making compromises to make things work outside the industrial system.  Pastured poultry operations might use non-organic feed to keep costs down, for example, but organic poultry operations might not provide nearly as much outdoor access for their animals.

"We're trying to help consumers…navigate their own values around meat, not to dictate to them what good meat is," she said. "We simply say, 'Here's our basic definition. There's a lot within that where you can decide for yourself if something is important or not.' So…nodding to the fact that there's not necessarily one right way to do it."

And when you start to look at the range of online meat companies, it's clear that they're taking many different approaches.

Animal welfare is one issue that's important to many eaters.

Heritage Foods has been selling meat from ancient breeds of livestock — all of which are raised outdoors on pasture — to chefs in New York City and across the country for decades, and it also now offers online ordering and nationwide shipping. Its focus is on preserving heritage breeds of turkey, pigs and more, to raise animals that thrive outdoors, retain agricultural biodiversity, and produce maximum flavor. (Disclosure: I host a podcast on Heritage Radio Network, which was founded by the founder of Heritage Foods.)

This focus on breeds is especially relevant to poultry, since the vast majority of chickens in the US have been bred to grow incredibly quickly, and that fast growth can make it difficult for the animals to move around and lead to health problems, even on farms with plenty of outdoor access.

That was the starting point for Matt Wadiak, the founder of Cooks Venture, a much newer sustainable meat delivery company based on an 800-acre farm in Arkansas. Cooks Venture is breeding its own slow-growing chickens to produce birds that have strong, healthy frames and that develop muscle later, for more tender meat. In addition to its own farm, a network of about 60 farmers in Arkansas and Missouri raise Cooks Venture's unique birds, which are free to roam and forage on pasture when they're not in the barns. Wadiak's primary goal was producing a higher welfare breed because he believes chickens belong outside but doesn't think industrial breeds can thrive on pasture. "That is a bird that is specifically bred to be in a very controlled environment," he said. "They're putting these animals where they were never meant to be, and the bird is still in a genetic prison."

Wadiak also prioritizes environmental initiatives such as a large silvopasture installation just completed at the Cooks Venture farm and a long-term project he's working on to harvest cover crops for feed. But unlike some other companies, his chickens are not eating organic feed. ButcherBox, on the other hand, only sources organic chicken, which means the birds are fed organic feed but may not have the same level of access to the outdoors.

One thing the two companies do have in common with each other and many others in this space (including Crowd Cow and Pre) is that they're both sourcing the grassfed beef they sell primarily from Australia and New Zealand.

Wadiak presents that option as the best choice. He believes those countries are better suited for 100% grassfed beef production because cattle there can graze on lush grasses 365 days a year.

ButcherBox founder Mike Salguero sees the issue a little differently. He said the company sold grassfed beef from US farmers in its early days, but that as it grew, there weren't enough farmers doing 100% grassfed production to support the demand, and that the beef he was getting domestically didn't match the quality of Australia's, since farmers there had a well-developed system and the climate advantage. "But I do not want to source from Australia forever," he said, explaining that he's now engaging with the Department of Agriculture to encourage a study of scaling up grassfed production in the US. "I think the opportunity is to build a grassfed beef program in the United States. In order to do that, we have to change some stuff. We can't just plug it into the commodity model," he said.

Of course, there are other companies selling grassfed beef from small farms in the US, and as Davis points out, while the supply may not meet the demand that bigger companies can drum up, companies can make the choice to use that demand to help grow domestic supply. "They could choose to buy from domestic grass-fed producers or commit to supporting the growth of those producers by saying, 'We have x amount of demand, we commit to buying this amount from you. Let's make this happen in three years when your grassfed beef is ready.' That kind of thing. But obviously that's a long-term commitment."

For example, Heritage Foods, Porter Road, and Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative were all created to build a bigger market for small farms that are already raising animals sustainably here. A pair of Nashville chefs created Porter Road as a butcher shop to sell meat from local farms in Tennessee and Kentucky and then expanded it to include national shipping in 2018. All of their meat — beef, pork, lamb and chicken — comes from animals raised on pasture. However, instead of 100% grassfed, their farmers finish their cattle by feeding them grain in the field at the end of their lives. This cuts out the feedlot system but produces meat that more closely resembles what most Americans are used to, which the founders believewill help them have a bigger impact on creating better systems in the US.

Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative sells grassfed beef, forested pork and pastured poultry from a network of small farms mostly located in Arkansas and Missouri and owns and operates its own processing.

Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) based at Oregon State University, pointed to Grass Roots as an example of a meat delivery company that was creating value for farmers and communities in rural America. "I'm interested in helping US farmers and ranchers. I want to keep farmers on our land viable. So number one, my top concern is money going to US producers," she said. During COVID-19, Thistlewaite created a database of individual small farmsaround the country selling their meat online. "Second, I'm really interested in getting more dollars into the producers' hands rather than into the hands of intermediaries or investor-owned corporations or having profits go to shareholders. That's just extracting wealth from the countryside, and that model is what's destroying rural America. So that's not something I want to contribute to either," she said.

While she has been too busy recently to continue updating the database, it's still an incredible resource if you're interested in getting your meat delivered directly from a farm rather than through a company that aggregates. Aina is another website that allows you to search for farms that deliver in your area, including meat producers.

What does it mean to be transparent? 

Transparency is a word used often in this world, but, ironically, it's often unclear what it means. Grass Roots makes transparency easy. In addition to providing the names of its member farms and detailing the practices those farms follow, it uses blockchain technology that allows you to trace each piece of meat to a specific farm. Heritage Foods also provides detailed information on all of its farms.

But the bigger companies like ButcherBox, Crowd Cow, Pre, and even Cooks Venture (for beef) are generally sourcing meat through intermediaries, so you might not be able to trace what's on your plate to a specific farm. A company like Pre buys from thousands of farms in Australia and New Zealand, but it does share fairly detailed sourcing standards. Thrive Market, a leading online retailer of what it calls "ethically sourced" groceries, sells a wide variety of meats from producers — some who are identified and others who aren't  — using a range of practices, so sorting through the options takes some work. Its own Thrive Market beef comes from Chile, where it says the cattle are 100% grassfed. Some of its meats come from outside brands that have certifications and other qualifiers, like California-based Mary's certified organic chicken, which the Cornucopia Institute gives high marks for its practices, but other poultry options are less transparent, like its Thrive Market chicken thighs which don't identify a farm or supplier and which it says are from "humanely, pasture-raised heritage birds," all terms that are impossible to check.

Other companies also share the brands they're buying from, which can be helpful. ButcherBox buys chicken from Shenandoah Valley Organic's Farmer Focus and pork from Niman Ranch, for example. There's also overlap: Crowd Cow sells Cooks Venture's chicken.

Of course, as the Belcampo situation demonstrated, while it's likely a rare occurrence, even companies that provide detailed sourcing information can sometimes lie. "There's only so much you can know if you're being actively deceived," said Bryan Mayer, a leader in the better meat industry who co-developed Fleishers' butcher training program many years ago. "Never has the consumer had more information available to them, but is it good information?" Mayer said butcher shops with the highest standards across the country have built their reputations with customers based on trust over many years. Online, that's harder to do, because a lot of that trust-building involves the ability to ask direct questions. Davis and Thistlethwaite both made a similar point: they said that the biggest tell is if a company — whether it's a massive aggregator or a small farm selling its own products — is willing and able to answer any and every question you might have.

"I need to get to a place where I feel comfortable buying the meat, and that means that I need meat producers and professionals who can tell me where that meat came from and how it got to my table," Davis said. Thistlethwaite suggested looking for farms and sellers that provide photos and videos of their individual farm operations, talk in detail about their practices and standards, and allow for occasional visits to farms.

Third-party certifications can also be helpful, especially when buying from an online seller that is a larger aggregator, although they vary in reliability.

The Cornucopia Institute provides scorecards on organic beef and poultry that score different brands on their level of commitment to meaningful organic systems, but many of the brands and farms selling online are not covered in the scorecards.

For animal welfare across all kinds of meat, Animal Welfare Approved is the most rigorous and meaningful certification. To verify beef is 100% grassfed, there are several reliable third-party certifications, including PCO Certified 100% Grassfed, American Grassfed, Certified Grassfed by AGW, and NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grassfed.

The bottom line

These considerations barely scratch the surface of what you could consider when deciding whether or not to buy your meat online and who to get it from if you do. There's also the packaging (many companies are now using 100% recyclable or compostable options) and how farmers and workers are treated and compensated.

In the end, it's clear that getting meat delivered to your door can be a sustainable, ethical option. But just like you don't really know how the local farmers at the farmers' market are dealing with weeds or treating their animals until you ask, you'll have to evaluate each company and farm you click individually, by looking into the information they provide, asking questions and checking certifications. And if you do find a company or farm that sells online that aligns with your "good meat" values, it could help further shift your purchasing away from industrial sources.

Thistlewaite sees it as one piece of the good meat puzzle. "There are a variety of reasons why buying local year round doesn't always work, so I think buying from one of these farms that ships frozen products is not a bad thing at all," she said. "I buy some local meat at a local butcher shop that's owned by a farmer, I buy some at my farmers' market, and then I buy frozen meat shipped from Arkansas from the Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative because I can get more variety."

By Lisa Elaine Held

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