“Crowd Cow” Co-Founder Joe Heitzeberg on Taking the Mystery Out of Meat

Crowd Cow co-founder Joe Heitzeberg and Tina Khalig of Khalig Ranch in Dilley, Texas

Summer’s in full swing and that means grilling season is heating up! As we’ve all begun to think a bit more about where our food comes from and how it’s made, it might not be a bad idea to do a little homework on the history of your hamburger! Did you know that beef and pork product labels aren’t required to show where the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered? Ethan Lowry and Joe Heitzeberg’s company Crowd Cow is doing its part to solve the “mystery meat” problem by allowing customers to buy meat directly from small family farms. Use the promo code “katie” to get free shipping on your first order and then read my conversation below with Joe to learn a lot more about the meat you eat!

Katie Couric: Where did the idea for Crowd Cow come from?
Joe Heitzeberg: One day, a coworker was bragging about how he was “getting his cow on Friday” — how he always buys his meat from a local farm, how much better it tastes and how proud he was to know that his purchase supports a farmer that cares about the animal, the environment and the community. He knew the farmer, and had better meat. “Craft Meat”. And he wouldn’t share!

In talking about this with my co-founder Ethan, we thought there should be a service where anyone can easily order this “craft meat” and there was a person on the other end who cared about the animal, the environment and the flavor — shipped to your doorstep.

In contrast to the grocery store meat, where the person behind the counter can’t tell you what country the meat is from, we wanted radical transparency and traceability — and higher quality — better because it was raised by people who give a damn. We’ve come a long way from our first farm sale to our friends in Seattle. Today, we’re the largest marketplace of craft meat farms, the top 1% of independent farms and ranches, with customers all across the USA, and we offer the best craft beef, truly pasture-raised chicken, heritage pork and sustainable seafood available anywhere — shipped immediately from our website.

Katie: What do you think most people would be surprised to know about where their meat comes from? What shocked you as you started to learn more about the industry?
Joe: Most people would be shocked to learn that a lot of meat sold online and in stores is called “product of USA” even though it was raised and slaughtered in Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil or another country. This technicality that allows meat to be cut and repackaged state-side and relabelled.

Another shocking fact is that a lot of “grass-finished” beef (cattle which have eaten nothing but grass their entire lives) is, in fact, cattle fed manufactured grass pellets in industrial feedlots overseas. Because “grass-finished” beef has become popular lately, the industry has adapted to meet the demand.

Over 86% of beef sold in the USA is controlled by just 4 companies — the largest of which is a Brazilian company, and so it should be no surprise that most beef sold in the USA, regardless of its labeling or stock-art photography, comes from an industrialized “CAFO” (concentrated animal feeding operation) that most people wouldn’t care to eat if they only knew. But the level of transparency and traceability for meat sold in this country is next to none.

Katie: Did you really do market research by talking with people at Starbucks? When did you realize you were onto something?
Joe: We knew we were onto something immediately when we approached strangers at a Starbucks with our elevator pitch and nearly everyone said they loved the idea. Only the vegetarians didn’t ask for the URL.

Starbucks is a hometown hero, and they’ve single-handedly changed coffee for the better in my lifetime. Remember when a cup of coffee was a 50 cent yes/no question?

There is a new generation of conscientious and purpose-driven consumer who wants more choices, higher quality and “radical transparency” about where their food comes from. When I think about coffee, chocolate, beer and a few other important food categories, the level of choice and transparency is far greater than in meat — where the folks at the meat counter at the grocery store can’t even tell you what *country* the meat is from, let alone anything about how it was raised or who raised it.

Katie: How do you source the farmers you work with? What is it important for you that they offer?
Joe: First of all, we meet a lot of farmers and we work with very few. That’s because we seek farms that are dedicated to the highest ethical standards and who produce the best tasting meat. We spend a lot of time with every farm we work with, to understand their practices, the local environment and their family story, so we can share that in full transparency on our website. It’s their name on the product, not our’s.

Katie: I thought it was interesting that it’s difficult for you to sell ground beef! Why’s that?
Joe: A lot of people think of ground beef as a “filler” protein. That’s probably because most ground beef in this country comes from low-quality animals. Our ground beef is different — it comes from animals raised to produce premium steaks — and most people have a profoundly positive experience when they try it. That’s why we refer to it as “ground steak” — and it’s also why Shake Shake and the Seattle Mariners feature our ground beef to their patrons!

Katie: How would you describe your typical customer?
Joe: We resonate with people who want the best for themselves and their families. For those who whose pay attention to the quality of food they put in their body. They are from all walks of life,  but believe that food is one of the great pleasures, and should be additive to their life and their health.

Katie: We’re all becoming more concerned about and invested in where our food comes from. Why do you think this is becoming such a priority for folks?
Joe: As Michael Pollan said, “You are what you eat, eats.” This could not be more true. Meat is an important food category. It’s the center of the meal, central to one’s health and people spend quite a lot of their income on it. It’s time that people had more transparency about where their food comes from so they can enjoy eating it, responsibly, and be confident that their dollars are part of a positive change.

Katie: You’re both serial entrepreneurs…what do you have your eye on for your next big venture?
Joe: Although I’ve pursued other ventures, I’ve never been more confident or passionate about the impact and positive change as I have had with Crowd Cow. The market opportunity is huge, and with our farms and customers cheering us on, I expect to be working on this for a long time.

Katie: Thanks so much, Joe!