Meating in the Middle: Local Stores, Distributors Offer Humanely Raised Meat

Boots on the ground: Firsthand Foods co-founder and CEO Jennifer Curtis in the field. Pigs (and chickens) are omnivorous. Pasture-raised animals get a variety of food, as well as fresh air, sunshine and exercise. That tends to keep them healthier than animals whose lot is the feedlot. Photo courtesy of Firsthand Foods.


By Gregory DL Morris

Meat is on the front lines of sustainable agriculture and husbandry. National and regional reporting and animal-welfare groups have long asserted that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—known as feedlots or factory farms—are unhealthy for the livestock and for the environment. While some consumers have eliminated meat from their diets, many others choose to consume humanely raised, sustainable meat. That is available, but there are significant logistical challenges to its growth.

CAFOs for poultry and swine are a huge industry in North Carolina, but Southern Orange and Durham counties are home to both retail and wholesale operations that are doing well by doing good.

Cliff’s Meat Market has been a Carrboro institution for more than four decades. Weaver Street Market has grocery stores in Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Raleigh. Weaver Street carries local meat from Firsthand Foods and from Lady Edison. Firsthand, which is based in Durham, carries beef, pork, and lamb. All Lady Edison pork is from the North Carolina Natural Hog Growers Association.

“The meat we purchase is very different from what the average large retailer is buying; most of that is from CAFOs,” said Carolyn Twesten, produce, meat and seafood merchandiser for Weaver Street, a co-op store owned by employees and shoppers.

“We buy all pasture-raised or grass-fed, not finished on corn because that is better for the animals. Cows are ruminants, they evolved to eat grass. Grains give them health problems, as does the close confinement, so they get sick, and so they get antibiotics,” Twesten said.

Meat case at Weaver Street Market, showing a range of types and cuts. While pasture- and humanely raised meat is more expensive than factory-farm meat, about two-thirds to three-quarters of that goes back to the farmers and processors. Retailers usually make about the same profit margin with this type of meat as they do with industrial meat from feedlots. Photo courtesy of Weaver Street Market.

Pigs and chickens are omnivores, so the essential description is pasture-raised, rather than grass-fed.

Sprouts and Trader Joe’s declined to comment for this story. Harris Teeter, Wegman’s, Whole Foods and Fresh Market did not respond to multiple inquiries.

“We have been able to find local pork and beef,” said Twesten, “but local chicken is more difficult. We carry Springer Mountain Farms, from Georgia, and Farmer Focus, from Virginia.”

Industrial farms, local enterprises and consumer preferences

One possible reason for that may be the dominance of industrial poultry in North Carolina. As the News & Observer reported in a series late last year, neighboring states regulate factory farming more rigorously than North Carolina does.

“It is definitely more expensive to carry humanely raised meat,” said Twesten. She explained that more acreage is needed per animal as compared to CAFOs, as well as more time for the animals to reach finish weight.

The global and North American meat supply chain is mostly driven by economies of scale. Grass-fed or pasture-raised, certified-humane meat has become better established in some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina than in the U.S. That is, in part, why such brands are available in many large retail grocery chains while local equivalents are less available.

“We are not really set up in this area for a lot of local meat,” said Cliff Collins, founder of the eponymous meat market in Carrboro. “The few abattoirs are so busy. We need two or three more.”

Collins is very local, originally from the Jordan Lake area of Chatham County. He sold his market to Geraldo “Tolo” Martinez three years ago and is sort-of retired, but is at the shop almost every day.

Even though the system was built by the CAFOs for the CAFOs, the trends are in favor of local and humane. “Surveys show that people are willing to pay more for food that aligns with their values,” said Twesten. “Four out of five shoppers in surveys say they want to buy more sustainable options, and 44% of shoppers say they are ‘purpose driven’ in buying food and beverages.”

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 95% of farm animals in the U.S. are raised in factory farms. That is almost 10 billion animals.

Surveys reliably show that the American public cares deeply about farm animals and wants them to be protected from suffering,” the humane society states. “About half of respondents to a recent survey conducted for the ASPCA reported that their concern over farm-animal welfare motivated them to buy higher-welfare meat, eggs, and dairy.”

Tina Prevatte Levy, co-founder and chief operating officer of Firsthand Foods, talks with Dwight Hall, one of the farmers who supplies their meat. As a B Corporation, Firsthand has a mandate to consider the needs of suppliers like Hall, along with those of employees, customers and the environment. Photo courtesy of Firsthand Foods.

Consumers are hungry, literally, for farm-raised, local, meat, said Jennifer Curtis, co-founder and CEO of Firsthand Foods. “People want food they can trust that is good for their families, humanely raised and not harmful to the environment. The number one challenge to that is scale. Meat is a particular challenge to do locally because of the lack of processing.”

That is a problem across the country, Curtis explained. “We are actually better off in North Carolina than in some other parts of the country, but even so there is a shortage of processing capacity and skilled professionals in the trade.”

One alternative is for farmers to ship animals to a feedlot for finishing and processing, which is not economically viable and defeats the purpose of locally raised. Some farmers raise and finish their animals, and find local processing. That still presents them with the challenge of retail sales. Selling at farmers’ markets often means a shortage of some cuts and a surplus of others.

That middle market—neither industrial feedlot nor farmers’ market—is where operations like Firsthand Foods see opportunity. “We have formed a network of producers,” said Curtis.

“For our first ten years we were hyperlocal. In the past few years we have grown regionally to supply customers from Charlotte and Asheville to Wilmington and even Richmond, Virginia. We want to be a model that others can emulate,” Curtis added.

Balancing multiple needs and interests

The team at Firsthand has a stake in the company’s success because the interests of employees are formally recognized as part of a B Corporation’s business practice, along with customers, suppliers and the community.

Firsthand is a B Corporation, which means that the interests of employees, customers, suppliers and the community are formally part of its business practice. In contrast, the mandate for traditional C corps is shareholder primacy.

Balancing those interests can be relatively straightforward: “Our main objective is to sell to retailers at price where both we and they can make a profit,” said Curtis.

It can also be more complicated. Beyond expanding its regional wholesale distribution network, Firsthand’s other big opportunity for growth is selling direct-to-consumers, which might seem to put it into competition with some of the grocery stores it supplies.

Curtis believes there is room for growth in both segments, notably because the distributor can balance the supply chain. Farmers can only sell whole animals, but retail demand for different cuts varies greatly. Ideally, the distributor can pay a fair and relatively steady price to the farmer and processor, supply as much of as many cuts as the retailer believes will sell, and then balance temporary surplus by direct sales.

Collins corroborated the challenges in pricing and supply balance of local meat for both wholesale and retail. “Superbowl weekend was big for chicken wings. I went into the local supermarket for bananas and saw them selling a two-and-a-half-pound tray of already-cooked wings for about the price that we sell a pound of raw wings.”

On a more positive note, Collins added that “our local pork is less expensive and tastes better than the wild boar” that is offered as a specialty meat by some retailers. “We also grind our own beef and cut our own steaks. Come in and talk to me or Tolo. Ask us to cut a rib eye for you.”

Gregory DL Morris is an independent journalist based in Chapel Hill with more than 30 years’ experience covering business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces, and 17 countries on five continents.

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5 Comments on "Meating in the Middle: Local Stores, Distributors Offer Humanely Raised Meat"

  1. savannah scarborough | February 17, 2023 at 12:32 pm | Reply

    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  2. This is what is known as ‘humane washing’ or ‘green washing –techniques used in marketing to make consumers feel better about their purchases. There is no way to humanely kill a being who does not want to die. ‘The myth of implied consent’ tells us that beings somehow agree to be killed and eaten if only they are treated well during their lives. This is indeed a myth. No being wants to die.

  3. savannah scarborough | February 18, 2023 at 7:48 am | Reply

    Martin Luther King, Jr.

  4. As a vegetarian for over 30 years. I find it somewhat gratifying to see a trend toward humanely raised meat. However, the animals still have to be slaughtered and processed in oftentimes inhumane ways. I am very satisfied with my present diet with a variety of meat analogs and will continue as a vegetarian. Believe Meats, lab grown from animal cells, will be opening soon in the Triangle. We’ll see how they progress.

  5. I am completely disheartened by this article. Given the environmental havoc, the violent killing of sentient animals at a very small fraction of their natural lives, the degradation of land, air, and water that ANY animal agriculture causes, the desensitizing of all involved in the euphemistic “processing” of living animals, the health issues that are so prevalent on a standard american diet of animal flesh, and the elitism involved in those with enough money having their moral qualms assuaged by still another euphemistic “humane meat” should mean articles of this sort aren’t written. We should all be working towards reducing and eventually eliminating the flesh of other animals from our diets. There is no such thing as “meat” (again, a euphemistic word) without a environmental, health, and moral impact. Let’s stop lying to ourselves.

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