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Pasture Raised, grass-fed, organic and free-range: more and more often you see these labels on dairy products, eggs, and meat packaging at the grocery stores. Good news for consumers who care about the environment, oppose animal cruelty, want to eat healthier, or simply care about flavor – you’d think.

CrowdCow farmers offer free range organic pork
Free-range Pork

Like so many times, what started as a good idea soon turned into a marketing gimmick for less scrupulous suppliers.

A cow can be ‘grass-fed’ by being fed hay, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t spend its life stuck in a factory farm, unable to move. And free-range, according to Jon Whitely, PR Manager at CrowdCow, can simply mean a small open space has been added to an overcrowded barn full of animals that have never actually lived on a real pasture.

The Origins of Your Meat – Not Always Clear

Even more so, if you needed proof that the cellophane-wrapped meat from even the best grocery stores can be ‘mystery meat’, some labels lately inform the consumer that their meat could come from any number of countries – no way to track the source if the meat is contaminated, and no chance to know whether the next package you pick up comes from a different source, if flavor or quality is sub-par. But what are the options?

The internet is probably not the first place a consumer would think to turn to for quality meat from pre-qualified farmers who let you take a look at how their cows, chickens and pigs actually live.  But that’s precisely what CrowdCow offers on their site: meat that won’t be processed until the animals are sold, a variety of flavors you rarely get from grocery store meat, and a transparent farm-to-table process.

Ordering meat to be delivered to your home isn’t a new concept: Omaha Steaks has been shipping meat to doorsteps for decades, but there’s little to no information on their site as to where the meat comes from, or how the animals have been treated.

The Beginnings

CrowdCow also offers chicken and other poultry these days
Marble Creek Free-Range Chickens

In 2015, CrowdCow co-founders Ethan Lowry and Joe Heitzeberg saw an opportunity to improve things for farmers and consumers alike by doing the legwork for their customers: CrowdCow finds craft farmers who use sustainable practices and care for their animals’ well-being, and list them on their site. There, customers can read up on the farms’ practices, including what the animals have been fed throughout their live-cycle, find out exactly where their meat or poultry comes from, and pre-order product that’s healthier, cruelty-free, and absolutely delicious.

The Process

CrowdCow has an entire team dedicated to constantly finding more farms who meet their standards. “It’s quite the process,” says Whitely. “… it’s not easy, but we found when you do due diligence up front … really makes you confident that when you buy CrowdCow, you get a high quality meat.”

This concept also helps the farmers, who no longer need to try and sell directly to consumers, or sell their high-quality meat below price to major producers who mix these flavorful meats with factory-farm product. Often, these farmers raise breeds from other countries, not widely found around U.S. farms, which makes for a unique flavor – a waste, if ground-up and mixed with low-quality meat, which is why many farmers rather don’t sell their animals at all.

The Breeds

Among the many breeds featured on CrowdCow you’ll find Italian Piedmontese, (a breed that often beats even Japanese Wagyu in blind taste tests), Australian Murray Grey, English Devon breeds, or Belgian Blues, just to name a few.  Of course, you can also purchase real Wagyu directly from Japan or, surprisingly, from Tasmania, where cattle roam by the seaside and the only addition to their grass fodder is kelp seaweed extract.

In addition to the breed itself, another major factor when it comes to unique flavor is what the animals are fed, and for how long.  While many of us probably never give it another thought, many traditional farmers actually have proprietary feed cycles for their animals, often-time handed down through many generations.

CrowdCow’s Shared Passion

Whitely’s quite passionate about the farmers’ efforts to produce craft meats. He’s likens the farmers’ products to craft beer: just like there are hundreds of IPO flavors, meat, too, can have an individual flavor depending on its breed, feed structure, and how it’s been raised. “Flavors you don’t even know exist if you just go to a grocery store every day.”

CrowdCow farmers' cattle are truly free range
Roaring Springs Ranch

CrowdCow isn’t entirely unique – the service is also available in the Netherlands, Germany and England, under the names KoopeenKoe in the Netherlands, or KaufneKuh in Germany. Unlike CrowdCow, these sites have separate websites for beef, pork, or poultry, but the thing they all have in common is transparency: no more guessing at the truthfulness of labels, and a source that takes responsibility, something Whitely points out is missing from most grocery store product.  

“There’s a loss of transparency with the current meat system,” he says, “where if you do buy something that’s bad-tasting or contaminated … you don’t know where it came from and who to blame; so a huge part of knowing the source and knowing where your meat came from is that extra layer of transparency where you’re not going to be fooled.”

Are these craft meat startups a sign that people have tired of factory farming and start looking for quality and sustainability over low prices and instant gratification?  Whitely does feel that more and more people are starting to reject the notion of consuming meat from animals fed filler, kept in misery and pumped full of hormones. But when asked if the movement toward small-scale farms could eventually lead to lower prices in the craft meat market, Whitely sticks to the aforementioned transparency and confirms that craft meat can never be as cheap as mass-produced product from factory farms.

The Cost of Quality and Well-Being

“It’s a little more expensive to eat local, sustainable and pasture-raised for sure,” he says, “but my argument would be, … me, personally, I would rather just eat less meat, but when I do eat meat, I make sure it’s high-quality, from a sustainable source, that I can trace back to its roots.  I would rather have high quality meat and have it less frequently, than frequently eat a lot of low-quality meat.”

Selection of CrowdCow delivery
A Selection of CrowdCow’s Many Quality Meats

Whether it’s healthy to eat meat, or how much is too much, can be debated until (forgive the pun) the cows come home. Knowing where your meat comes from versus getting a great deal is just as individual a decision as whether you want to support small farms and oppose animal cruelty. The one thing most consumers can agree on, however, is the importance of flavor, and considering the superior and varied flavors of craft meat, doing something good for the environment, the animals, and your health are always a bonus.

CrowdCow sells individual cuts and small portions of ground beef, which are a good way to try out not only the quality of craft meat in general, but also which farm’s product you like best. Delivery options depend on the farms’ cycles and the customers’ location, and the meat won’t ship until enough orders have been placed to use the entire animal, at which point it gets processed and delivered to the customer via CrowdCow.