Hacking Meat is an online conversation exploring how can information and technology be used to hack (or reimagine) a more sustainable, profitable and healthy future of meat. Join the conversation and share your ideas or product requests in the comments, on Twitter using #hackmeat, on Facebook or at the Hack//Meat hackathon happening December 7-9 in NYC.
Guest post by Jessica Moore of Philly CowShare
I run a business in Philadelphia buying locally-raised animals and selling meat to local customers. We act as a hub, coordinating and matching producers, processors and distributors to consumers. Our “food hub” sells “shares” of the meat yield from beef cattle and pigs through our website and delivers to our customers’ door. Like other small food-related businesses, we are figuring out how locally-raised animals can feed our regional population. Our work must fit within the culture of the other food related businesses that make up our regional supply chain. Technology can and does play a role, but must take a back seat to the culture and business practices surrounding how those other businesses currently operate.
In some ways, we’ve dialed back the clock to the way food worked before it was merged and vertically integrated by a handful of companies. If we can apply lessons learned from more vertically integrated food businesses to smaller local food supply chains, we can marry the transparency of local food to the efficiency of more traditional distribution channels. Information gleaned from larger companies about food safety, input costs of raising animals for food, nutritional composition of meat, natural resource management and consumer demand enable a level of efficiency and profitability to our regional meat-based supply chain.
Information, more than technology, is the key to creating a viable regionally-based food system. Technology can provide access to the information anywhere and at anytime, but the information tells us:
Cattle farmers get one shot a year at breeding an animal worthy of your plate. If they’re grass-fed cattle, it takes between 18 – 24 months to get that beef to your plate. How does a farmer know if you enjoyed the experience? How do they know if the beef from that animal tasted good? Was it profitable? They could check the commodity markets but grass-fed cattle don’t eat a grain-based diet so it is not really comparable. Often the farmer doesn’t have a connection to the retail transaction of their meat much less a connection to you, the eater.
Meat processors have finite production capabilities and there are not enough of them accessible to independent farmers. The supply of meat depends on their ability to run their manufacturing plants efficiently. Their goal is to move as many animals through the plant as their capacity allows and move the meat out of the cooler to make room for the animals coming up next. And with growing awareness in the conventional world of slaughterhouses, customers demand they treat the animals humanely and the employees, respectfully. This is perfectly reasonable but can be at odds with being efficient.
Cattle are huge animals. One minute you have a live animal and the next you have between 400 – 800 lbs of meat to contend with and a ticking clock. As a point of reference, one 1000 – 1200 lb live steer can feed 8 families for 6 months eating beef one time per week. Isn’t that an interesting sales challenge for a regional food retailer! Lastly, transportation continues to be a challenge. The meat must get from the farm to meat processor and finally to the customer safely. To know how to put all these pieces together profitably, you need information and discussion.
Before buying animals and selling beef, I worked at the intersection of technology and consumer web products. Every product feature or piece of content was monitored, analyzed and tracked to a metric that was then tied to the bottom line of the business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I understand the pull to apply the business practices that work wonderfully in other industries to meat food systems. Animals and meat are not widgets. Before you think about the next iPhone or Android app, take the time to learn about the food systems that raise the animals, produce the meat and get the meat to the customers. Help those businesses solve their business problems.
Jessica Moore founded Philly CowShare in 2010 after 6 years of organizing her friends to share a purchase of a locally-raised, grass-fed steer. Her family of five eats a Quarter CowShare a year. Each time she needed to restock her freezer, she put the call out “Who wants in on a cow?” The interest was overwhelming so Jessica started Philly CowShare to help other people buy cows from local farmers and experience the pleasure of sharing food with your community. Prior to buying cattle and selling beef, Jessica’s career was technology and consumer product focused. She’s been a software developer and product manager for start-up sized to large corporations. Her last endeavor was in the world of online video where she created a technology and video platform for Xfinity TV Online with Comcast Corporation. She has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from DePauw University, a master’s of science degree in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania, and–much to her mom’s dismay–is a Ph.D. drop-out from the same school. Isn’t that just standard behavior for entrepreneurial-minded folks? Jessica lives in West Philadelphia with her husband, three children and dog.