When Claire Herminjard left the tech industry, she knew what the direction and drive of her new career would be. “I wanted to start a business, in food, that made me feel like I was doing something good in the world and adhered to my values—and that was not necessarily starting a meat company. I didn’t start out saying I wanted to start a meat company.”
But as she dug into the issues of the industry—and the potential market opportunities they presented—it became clear that the future was meat. Specifically, non-GMO verified meat.
Now, after nearly a year of back and forth with the United States Department of Agriculture, The Non-GMO Project has received approval for labels that verify meat and liquid egg products have been raised without the use of GMO feed. Herminjard’s company, Mindful Meats, Mary’s Chicken, and the egg producer Hidden Villa Ranch will be the first to carry the seal on their products.
The process began last summer, when Mary’s Chicken submitted a label stating that its birds were fed non-GMO grain to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service—but its request was denied.
And thus began a lengthy process of the meat and egg companies working with USDA/FSIS to demonstrate that they were meeting the standards required by The Non-GMO Project for meat and egg products. However, Catherine Cochran of FSIS makes it clear that this is not a label backed by the USDA: “The agency has not developed any new policy regarding non-GE or non-GMO products and is not certifying that the labeled products are free of genetic engineering or genetic modifications.”
“It was a thoughtful process, that’s most certainly the case,” says Herminjard. “They took their time to do their due diligence to understand how the Non-GMO Project verifies products—what their standards are, how they control that and how they audit it.”
For the Non-GMO Project, the new meat regulations represent a significant step forward. Currently, the nonprofit has about 10,000 non-GMO-verified products, items that can be found throughout the grocery story—but not in the meat case. “The labeling of meat and liquid eggs was lagging behind,” says Megan Westgate, the organization’s executive director.
For foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for the majority of the items verified by the Non-GMO Project, there’s no requirement to get pre-market approval of labels. Dealing with meat, eggs, and the USDA is a different story. Since, “they just didn’t have a policy, and they’re typically pretty conservative about things,” says Westgate, fine-tuning the label and language took time.
In the interim, Mindful Meats was able to sell cuts of beef to restaurants and get its steaks stocked in butcher cases at supermarkets. But without the labeling approval, Herminjard couldn’t sell any packaged ground beef—a product that’s key to the company’s financial sustainability. Even if the wait forced Mindful Meats to take something of a financial hit, Herminjard didn’t mind too much. “I love following policy, so it was fun for me.”
The beef sold by Mindful Meats is now both certified organic and non-GMO verified, but its unique approach to the meat business doesn’t end with those two seals. Rather than working with beef ranches, Herminjard sources her cattle from dairy farms in Northern California.
In order to have a steady supply of milk, dairy farmers need a steady stream of calves so they can keep milking. Some of the female offspring become the next generation of the herd, but there’s not a place on the ranch for each and every male calf. In the case of organic, pasture-based dairy operations, “I found out that most of those animals are being sent into the conventional system, so you have an undervalued supply stream that’s being wasted,” Herminjard says.
Mindful Meat is now gearing up to debut its grass-fed ground beef—the first to bear both a certified organic and non-GMO verified seal—at retailers in Northern California. “I think we’re actually going to get it out the week of July 4th,” Herminjard says.