Meat of the Matter: Crowdsourcing a cow

A pair of Northwest entrepreneurs are harnessing technology to launch a buy-direct beef business. Unfortunately, their marketing pitch hits all the wrong notes.

Here's a story — a good news story, I should hasten to add — that offers two insights worth pondering.

First, that online technology can harness social trends for something other than whipping up anger that the meat industry is causing global warming.

And second, an instructive example that explains why people think that the meat industry is causing global warming.

Here's the story: According to UPI, a Seattle-based start-up is "taking locally sourced food to the next level by allowing customers to purchase cuts of beef from cows that have yet to be slaughtered."

I find that amazing.

Not that people can pre-order beef before cattle go to market. That UPI is still in business.

Who knew?

As the story phrased it, "The new company,, allows users to choose specific cuts of beef from specific cows that come from specific ranchers, with each animal divided into about 50 shares."

According to company co-founder Joe Heitzeberg, no cattle are slaughtered until all 50 shares have been sold, ensuring none of the beef goes to waste.

"We are literally buying a cow," Heitzeberg told ABC affiliate KOMO 4 TV.

As opposed to figuratively buying a cow, I guess.

But the typical snarky teaser that the two television anchors offered up before tossing the rest of the story to a reporter unintentionally provided a clue as to why media, and thus news consumers, are so clueless about so many topics related to food production.

"The best beef isn't bought in a butcher shop," the male co-anchor intoned, "it comes directly from a cattle rancher. But who has the freezer space for a whole cow?"

Obviously, there's virtually no one watching that broadcast who happens to have a freezer sitting out in their garage that can hold 800 pounds of beef. Good point.

However, who buys beef from a butcher shop? More people than own giant walk-in freezers, I suppose, but not many more.

And who says buying directly from a cattle rancher guarantees the best beef? You're buying meat, not fresh produce. No supermarket runs ads saying, "Our meat is so fresh that just hours ago, that hamburger you're buying was munching on clover."

Clueless TV personalities aside, there is a real upside to this story, but it gets weighed down by the tiresome repetition of yet another anti-industry meme that gets traction from consumers who don't seem to realize that we're no longer living in the 1940s.

A huge distraction

The founders said their company offers a solution for customers who want the finest and freshest meat, but don't want to make the "huge purchases" required by most cattle ranchers.

Heitzeberg and co-founder Ethan Lowry said that they were inspired by other crowdsourcing businesses. Since crowdsourcing is practically a way of life in Seattle, their sources of inspiration were no doubt numerous.

But instead of pitching their business model on the convenience and (presumably) economic advantage of buying direct, they launched into a tirade about conventional beef.

"When you go to the grocery store, it's typically mystery meat," Heitzeberg told UPI. "You have no idea where it came from. Whereas, we think it should be marketed, sold and experienced like a microbrew or like wine."

That might make sense from a price-value perspective. Boutique wines or microbrews typically cost more than "mass-produced" alternatives, but arguably, they offer a quality that validates the premium price point.

More to the point, it isn't just the single vineyard, or those shiny tanks that brewpubs have on display behind glass walls right behind the bar that sells the product. Yes, there's an appeal to knowing the geographic origin of that Pinot Grigio or Belgian White you're sipping. But if the beverage doesn't deliver on flavor, clarity and other esoteric sensory attributes, you won't be ordering another one.

Likewise, you can be provided a photo of the specific tree in the specific pasture showing your specific cow dozing in the shade yesterday afternoon, and it does nothing to ensure eating quality. That depends on a myriad of factors, from genetics to finishing to fabrication to aging and ultimately, to preparation.

Now, in fairness to the company's founders, their website does pitch the quality message: Grass fed, Angus-Hereford cross cattle, raised by a lifelong rancher, Jerry Foster.

That's what should have led the story: Locally grown, sustainably produced, highly nutritious food from a professional rancher who's keeping farmland in production — a story that's positive on so many levels with which Seattle residents could connect.

Instead, people get distracted by buzzing about crowdsourcing, rhetoric about mystery meat and baloney about butcher shops versus direct-to-market quality.

At the end of the day, this is a bright idea and a terrific way to provide a path to profitability for an independent rancher and a useful option for consumers who want to support their local economy.

I just wish all that the good news didn't have to be obscured by a sideshow of inaccurate nonsense. ‚ñ°

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator