How Ethical, Sustainable and Healthier Meat is Making Its Way Into Your Freezer
Ethical and nutritional concerns have led a growing number of Albertans to turn their backs on factory-farmed meat. Find out how sustainably raised products are filling that void, and why that might be good news for your local farmer
by Ian Doig
Sidebar: More Than Meats The Eye
When Chantal Eves, an idealistic university student, suggested to her father, Brian Eves, that the family’s Calgary-based frozen meat and seafood business should sell sustainable products, he was skeptical. It was a new, unproven niche market. How would his clients react? More importantly, would he make any money from it?
Chantal didn’t have any doubts, though. “I realized the only way we could make an impact was if we altered the way we did our business,” she says. Today, as director of sustainability for Dor-Bel International Fine Food, she’s doing just that.
The term “sustainable” has been used – and abused – so often that it’s become a catch-all for anything that doesn’t involve clear-cuts, dragnet fishing and other environmentally insensitive practices. But when it comes to the production and distribution of fish, game and other kinds of meat, sustainability can have a double meaning. Yes, ecologically friendly practices are good for the environment – and they might be even better for the long-term prospects of companies that deploy them.
In October 2009, Dor-Bel became the first retailer in Alberta to partner with Ocean Wise, the Vancouver Aquarium’s non-profit, seafood sustainability certification program. Eves began marketing sustainable seafood such as Alaskan sockeye salmon, greenshell mussels, Baja scallops and Lake Winnipeg walleye as well as sustainable Spring Creek Angus beef, Carmen Creek Gourmet Meats bison and Bowden Farm Fresh Chicken. Dor-Bel now finds itself in the industry vanguard of a sustainable-food revolution. “Unlike some other retailers, who will get people whatever they want and who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about sustainability, we try to steer people in the direction of sustainable choices,” says Brian. “We’re trying to be a leader in the industry.”
While convincing customers to accept an entirely new product format might seem like a significant undertaking, the sustainable philosophy practically sells itself. “People like to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem,” says Mike McDermid, Ocean Wise partner relations manager. That observation is borne out by the numbers: sustainably certified fish now tends to outsell non-sustainable options at restaurants and grocers, when available. “What that’s telling us is it’s working, and people have shied away from seafood unless they can guarantee it’s an ocean-friendly choice they’re making,” says McDermid.
It’s a model McDermid believes can be applied more broadly in the food industry as a whole. “We know if consumers start voting with their wallets and create this market, it’s going to trickle down through the industry to the fisher and farmer and allow them to conduct their operations more sustainably, and they’ll get value for that product.” Gordon Cove, CEO of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency (ALMA), says the same kind of stratification is taking place in the market for livestock – from beef, pork and chicken to bison and lamb. In the beef realm, these include grass-fed and organically raised cattle as well as breeds like Angus and Hereford. He emphasizes that these niche markets are all small in relation to the greater commodity meat sector, but some of them – many based on sustainable agricultural practices – are making inroads in the mainstream.
Specialty-farming operations are costlier to operate than traditional ones and volumes are smaller, but the returns are often better. Cove says specialty agriculture is a classic risk/reward proposition: it’s not for every farm producer, but there are great opportunities there for those willing to make the switch. And where specialty producers once had to go it alone, more or less, they can now tap the Canadian Cattle and Beef Market Development Fund if they intend to export > their products. ALMA also provides startup and market-access assistance as well as developing labelling and marketing strategies. It also, importantly, helps organize the “value chain,” industry parlance for the all-important co-operative business links that are key to the growth of sustainable food businesses.
For Cove, the customer-education element is critical. “We always use the tagline ‘The more you know, the better you eat,’ and there’s truth to that,” he says. People are increasingly prepared to pay for meat that is, for example, antibiotic-free and carbon-friendly. “They just generally think it’s healthier or raised in a more sustainable way,” Cove says. “Those are all factors that come into the marketing regimes, but [there are] also certification and standards behind it that give it some credibility.”
In fact, the sustainable sector’s biggest problem right now may be the scale of its own success. Industry leader Carmen Creek of Calgary, a Dor-Bel supplier, produces hormone- and antibiotic-free bison products. Bison is known for its sustainability-friendly conversion of feed to delicious lean meat. Demand for it has mushroomed, leaving the company short on supply until its network of 100 producers can build their herds. Demand continues to climb, but Carmen Creek CEO Kelly Long predicts it may take as long as five years to build up an adequate supply.
That’s a remarkable turnaround from just a decade ago, when the bottom fell out of the bison industry. Carmen Creek was instrumental in engineering bison’s dramatic turnaround by creating a marketing organization for producers that emphasized the fact that bison was not only ecologically friendly but economically sustainable. “We decided that we needed to get into it to create a sustainable industry for producers. It’s sustainable now; it’s on an upward curve again,” says Long, laughing at her own understatement.
Carmen Creek’s Alberta bison is now available in 700 grocery stores across the Netherlands, in Whole Foods stores across the U.S. and in Safeway, Sobeys, Co-op and Overwaitea in Canada. Bison appears to have thundered into the mainstream, but Long points out that Alberta is ahead of the pack. “It’s much more mainstream in Alberta than it is anywhere else, but we’ve been told by Whole Foods that it’s one of their biggest-growing protein categories.”
Dor-Bel’s beef supplier, Spring Creek Ranch near Vegreville, is another trailblazer in the business. It has addressed the growing demand for healthier, ethically raised meat and has experienced considerable growth as a result. Established in 2003, the premium Angus beef business has now surpassed $5 million in annual sales.
It’s something of a cruel irony, but Spring Creek’s success was in large part a product of an industry-wide catastrophe, the arrival of mad cow disease in Canada. Traditional beef ranchers suffered terribly as a result of the news that the disease had been found in Canadian cattle, but those in the business of producing specialty beef began to prosper. Spring Creek’s Kirsten Kotelko, a fourth-generation rancher, says the mad cow crisis forced consumers to pay more attention to where their meat comes from and how it is produced. Spring Creek’s 40-plus ranchers submit to a strict monitoring process, and their cattle are traced using electronic ear tags. Animal byproducts, which have been the source of the spread of mad cow disease, are forbidden.
The Kotelko family farm is a model of environmental stewardship and sustainable agricultural practices. Manure is fed into Canada’s first integrated biorefinery, where it’s digested by anaerobic bacteria. The process yields fertilizer that Spring Creek applies to its own fields and gas that fuels a cogeneration system. This powers the ranch as well as supplying the provincial power grid with enough electricity for 1,000 homes. A forthcoming expansion will soon produce five times this amount.
“We’ve always been progressive farmers and saw the market calling for something that was hormone- and antibiotic-free, ethically raised and traceable through the system,” says Kotelko. Spring Creek was among the first Alberta beef producers to take its products to white-tablecloth chefs in the early phase of the eat-local trend. Producers like Spring Creek created inroads with these tastemakers that have paved the way for a flood of local meat and produce into both the restaurant sector and home kitchens.
Kotelko also noticed that sustainability-branded products were a rarity in Canadian supermarkets. As a result, Spring Creek is now the first sustainability-branded Alberta beef available in Safeway stores. “The sustainability things we’re doing just make good business sense,” she says, “whether you’re branding your beef and marketing it or not.”
Kotelko knows there will always be demand for high-volume, low-cost meat, but she believes sustainable food producers will soon capture a more significant portion of the market. By necessity as much as by design, sustainability will continue to play a greater part in the production and marketing of beef. “I think it’s the next thing on the consumer checklist. Five years ago we were just starting to talk about organics, hormone-free, antibiotic-free. Now that’s kind of expected. It’s the same thing with sustainability. In five years’ time, you’re probably going to see [consumers] demanding it.”
The old maxim that the customer is always right carries the cynical implication that the customer is king, even when he’s dead wrong. But the altruistic consumer impulse behind the growing market for sustainably raised and produced foods has been better than right: it has been generous, too. In the end, this willingness to pay more for better food may prove to be both a saviour for the seafood industry and a lifeline for producers in the perennially challenging meat sector. And what’s wrong with that?