WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio – Heard all this news lately about animal identification and trace-back, being able to pinpoint an animal’s origin and track it through the production process?
Joseff Cockrill has, and he’s not all that intrigued.
At least not anymore.
Heinen’s Fine Foods, the Cleveland-based company Cockrill works for, has been tracing its meat products from farm gate to Mom’s plate for years.
Like most retailers, the grocer listens to consumers to keep its reputation for providing high-quality eating experiences, according to Cockrill, a meat merchandiser for Heinen’s Fine Foods.
And that, he says, is the reason the small chain features source verification.
Cockrill said Heinen’s was the first retailer in the U.S. to source- and process-verify its beef and pork, and others are following suit.
“There’s a huge disconnect in the [meat] industry. The producer, feedlot and packer are all trying to make a buck and, historically, the consumer suffers,” Cockrill said.
“No one in that line is accountable to anyone else, but it’s the retailer that gets the feedback that something tastes bad or isn’t as good as last time,” he said.
Cockrill said in any one day, a grocer’s meat case can feature steaks from Iowa, Texas and Florida, but no consistency from cut to cut.
Heinen’s recognized that and decided to work with the ranchers to prevent consumer dissatisfaction.
Today when you visit another retailer’s meat case you’re sure to see Certified Angus Beef or high-end brands like Coleman’s, Cockrill said. But at Heinen’s you only see one label: Heinen’s Own.
“We offer an A-to-Z selection from soup meats to steak, and you’ll get the same eating experience from all of it,” Cockrill said.
Heinen’s beef is source-verified: The system is so extensive a single T-bone can be traced back to the animal it was cut from, plus that animal’s sire and dam.
A simple, but enhanced, affidavit system requires anyone who handles the animals from farm to packinghouse to sign off. That records system starts the day a calf is born, according to Cockrill.
Heinen’s demands anyone who raises cattle for the company – the 10,000-head feedlot out West or the 30-cow mom and pop farm nearby – follow its rules.
“These are the standards by which we operate. If they’re going to be a supplier of Heinen’s Own Beef, they cooperate,” Cockrill said.
“[The record]’s not just ‘an animal is born here and was killed here,'” Cockrill said. “Heinen’s takes it to the next level.”
Heinen’s calls those standards the backbone of its all-natural, never-ever program, Cockrill said.
The program is extremely regimented. Before prime rib or roasts hit the meat case, records prove the cattle have received a strict vegetarian diet. That means they’re primarily grass-fed and finished on corn.
“That delivers the taste profile we’re looking for,” Cockrill said.
The standards also dictate no hormones, no steroids, no antibiotics. And Heinen’s goes even one step further, saying their producers can’t use shocking prods to sort or run the cattle.
Four full-time auditors work the circuit between Heinen’s supplier-ranches to be sure the rules are followed.
When Heinen’s started the source verification program in 1997, they dispatched cowboys and animal scientists and feedlot operators to the chain’s stores across northeastern Ohio to give consumers a taste of the program.
And while Cockrill acknowledges some consumers are only concerned with price – that is, they’ll buy whatever is cheapest and go for quantity over quality – he says most of those consumers shop elsewhere.
Jeff Lapars, general manager of the Solon/Twinsburg store, says consumers don’t think twice about buying Heinen’s Own meats.
“You can never get [meat from] an animal with mad cow disease from Heinen’s. We have all the records, know what it was fed and when and where. We have 100 percent confidence in our meats,” Lapars said.
Cockrill admits a quick trip to the parking lot at any of Heinen’s 16 stores will show you quite a few BMWs and Mercedes Benzes.
“But our prices are competitive,” he says, citing a recent marketing check between Heinen’s and Giant Eagle.
“We had strip steaks for $10.99 a pound, and theirs were $16.49. Our Delmonicos were $10.89, theirs were $16.49,” he said.
Hooked on the taste
If the price isn’t enough to get consumers hooked, the traceability and local cutting is.
The 175,000 customer visits chainwide each week don’t lie, the meats man says.
Cockrill said the chain boasts third- and fourth-generation customers who can trace their own roots to great-grandparents who visited Heinen’s flagship butcher shop.
Today, Heinen’s has a meat cutter in every store and processes whole carcasses locally, and also buys the live animals from this area when they can.
“We have a greater concern for what’s raised and produced in the U.S., and it only adds value and benefit if it’s raised right here in Ohio,” Cockrill said.
More to come
Heinen’s pork products are both process and source verified through the USDA.
Their beef and poultry has process verification protocols in place, but don’t have USDA certification.
The company is working with Ohio lamb producers to source superior quality meats close to home, and it’s in the process of putting together a verification program for lamb now, too, Cockrill said.
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