From the rise of grass-fed to direct-to-consumer e-commerce aggregators to small-scale farmers shipping straight to consumers’ doors, not to mention the advances of new farming methods as well as alternative meat products, there’s an ongoing shakeup happening in the meat department. Covid-19 has advanced all of these trends: local supply chains, producers and delivery services have benefited from stay-at-home orders, while the pandemic has also strengthened consumer interest in where their food comes from, at times pushing more meat eaters to alternative products but also renewing their focus on quality.
Large corporations are tracking these trends and the US chicken industry’s largest player Perdue launched its own e-commerce direct-to-consumer website last year; it also owns regenerative farming operations.
Cooks Venture, a poultry producer founded by former Blue Apron cof0under Matt Wadiak, is also pursuing many of these trends: it has an e-commerce offering, it describes itself as using regenerative agriculture practices, and it’s also developed its own chicken breed. The Arkansas business recently closed a $10 million Series A round led by agtech investing pioneer Cultivian Sandbox alongside SJF Ventures.
“It is foodtech and agtech in some sense,” Dan Phillips, managing director at Cultivian Sandbox, told AFN regarding how the company fits into the firm’s portfolio. “It is a different type of investment for us given that it is a vertically integrated operation. They are breeding, growing, and processing chickens. But on the agtech side, from an animal health and production standpoint, we saw some significant advantages with the breed that Cooks is commercializing.”
An athletic breed
The genetic line that it has developed — called the Pioneer — is slower growing, has fewer disease problems, and consumes a more diverse diet compared to the Cornish Cross variety that dominates 99% of the US poultry industry and 90% of the global poultry industry, according to Phillips. He points to recent documentaries and data showing that chickens are significantly bigger today than they were in the 1950s.
But as the industry has optimized its breeding programs for one factor — a bird that gets to butcher weight as fast as possible while consuming as little feed as possible — other problems manifested. Fast-growing birds’ bodies are unable to keep up with their rapid weight gain leading to leg problems and in some cases complete immobilization. The industry has also struggled with woody breast, a condition resulting in a muscle abnormality that leads to a tough, unpalatable texture in the meat.
Cooks Venture’s chickens are not susceptible to woody breast syndrome, according to Phillips, who adds that they are “smaller and almost more athletic” in their physique. They’re also clearly healthier, as the brand proudly uses the “no antibiotics ever” label that’s increasingly important for consumers. And for consumers that are less focused on those credentials or the birds’ “unrestricted access to the outdoors,” the brand wins on taste, argues Philipps.
“There will be a spectrum of consumer understanding [re the genetics and breed]. We have great customer retention and loyalty rate. Taste and texture bring some of the stickiness for those who have tried it,” Phillips explains. (AFN editor Louisa Burwood-Taylor has tasted a $20 Cooks’ chicken and agrees they are delicious.)
Proving its credentials
Alongside the Series A funding, Cooks Venture has also announced a new partnership with FoodID, a startup that is developing a test to verify whether or not meat products are truly antibiotic-free. Cooks will be one of the first companies to use FoodID’s test to substantiate its antibiotic-related labeling claims.
FoodID founder Bill Niman, who’s also a pioneer in grass-based, regenerative livestock systems in the US, told AFN that the USDA merely tests for a high threshold limit of antibiotic residues, let alone whether the animal has ever been given antibiotics. FoodID’s test is at least 10 times more sensitive, providing greater transparency and integrity to antibiotic-related claims on meat labels, he said.
Niman worked with Wadiak at Blue Apron when the meal kit company bought his BN Ranch in 2017. Cooks Venture also markets itself as a regenerative operation. While the term regenerative agriculture still lacks a solid definition or clearly delineated boundaries, it has become an increasingly popular buzz-phrase in recent months, with a range of large corporations and startups taking it on to describe their attempts at moving away from conventional farming systems that are increasingly under the spotlight for their damaging impact on the environment and human health.
In short, regenerative agriculture is a move away from using a multitude of inputs – be them antibiotics, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or genetically modified seeds — towards a method of farming that aims to work with nature and local habitats with a solid focus on improving soil health to produce sustainable yields. Cover cropping, where a crop is grown between seasons to prevent the soil from otherwise being left bare and at-risk of erosion, is one example of a regenerative practice.
Supporting cover cropping
What makes Cooks Venture regenerative, according to Phillips, is the Pioneer breed’s ability to consume and process a more diverse diet compared to conventional birds that are primarily fed corn, typically grown in a conventional system, albeit sometimes organic.
“Cooks Venture’s chicken can consume things like red winter wheat and other crops that are reducing the monocultures dominating the US. The chickens can also consume off-season cover crops,” said Phillips. This supports the growth of the cover cropping practice by providing those farmers with a market for these crops, which improve soil health, he added.
Management intensive grazing is another regenerative practice. This typically involves rotating livestock to new pastures in order to let the previously grazed pasture rest and regrow with the benefit of the recently deposited manure. With Cooks’ birds able to access the outdoors, Cooks Venture argues they’re pasture-raised and able to regenerate the land around them.
A group of poultry farmers from the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association disagree and had an outspoken response to Cooks’ launch in 2019, noting that Cooks raises its birds in stationary houses. While the houses provide access to the outdoors, the birds primarily choose to stay inside. The stationary houses also lead to overgrazing of surrounding pastures, they claim. APPPA members believe that pastured poultry is a label reserved for operations where the birds are moved to fresh pasture at regular intervals through the use of mobile coops, but without a USDA rule defining pasture-raised, both camps are free to use the term as they see fit.
Despite the challenges that exist in the growing meat industry, Phillips is optimistic about Cooks’ role even during the pandemic.
“The company, on the production side, has the processing facilities and the team in place to rapidly ramp up production. I feel confident that it can be done effectively and safely while of course monitoring those facilities for employee safety during this time. The team is executing plans and protocols to keep that safe.”