By Adam Beyer
Eighty percent of America’s beef supply is sourced and controlled by four companies and comes from cows that spend much of their lives on feedlots. One Sanford graduate is working to change that system.
Claire Herminjard PPS’05 is the founder and CEO of Mindful Meats, a company based in Point Reyes Station, Calif., that supplies pasture-raised, certified organic beef to consumers. Mindful Meats is also the first Non-GMO Project verified beef company in the country. Right now, it supplies grocery stores and restaurants in the greater San Francisco region but is expanding fast. The product is also available on Amazon Fresh.
“Our mission is to restore the health of the America’s meat market – from the impact on our environment and the healthfulness of our meat through to the return to our suppliers,” Herminjard said.
The beef industry is under fire for its treatment of animals and its harmful effects on the natural environment, she explained. Herminjard saw an opportunity to change that by empowering ranchers to produce livestock in more beneficial ways and serve as the distributor.
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Changing the U.S. meat system
Claire Herminjard PPS'05 works with her company, Mindful Meats, to provide certified organic, non-GMO beef to customers in California and beyond.
Mindful Meat’s producers agree to raise animals on organic pastures and with certified organic supplemental feeds, free of pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), when the pasture is not in peak season, and, Herminjard says, the beef has a more balanced nutritional profile compared to a feedlot-fed animal. Because the company uses organic dairy cows for its meat, promoting a dual-purpose animal agriculture system, the average cow produces 75,000 pounds of meat and milk combined in its average five year lifetime. Most other beef cows are used only for meat, and so supply about 700 pounds of food in total.
Since selling its first cut of beef in early 2013, the company has been successful, with revenues growing 155% last year. Herminjard attributes this to the quality of the product and relationships with providers.
“There aren’t many brands that do what we do,” she said, adding that it’s a business model she hopes will spread nationally. “We have been met with great reception from ranchers.”
At Sanford, Herminjard said she focused on learning moral leadership skills. She cited professor Tony Brown as an influential force behind her interest in social entrepreneurship, as well as professor emeritus James Joseph for his wealth of experience and former professor Bruce Payne for his highly engaging experiential teaching strategy.”
After graduating from Duke, Herminjard moved to San Francisco and worked in the internet technology sector. In her free time, she began to study climate change, energy and food systems. She knew she wanted to get back to her interest in social entrepreneurship.
“I got into this business largely because of how I was influenced at Sanford,” she said. “I decided that instead of going into policy or a nongovernmental organization, I wanted to use business as a tool for good.”
Without any background in beef, Herminjard knew she had to learn from people who owed their livelihoods to it. She would go to farmers markets and strike up conversations, forming relationships with people who in many cases would later become suppliers for the company.
“I came in with a very honest and humble direction and explained the values I cared about and good work I wanted to do for the industry,” she said.
Starting a company required a lot of personal financial risk, she explained, although it is the work she loves doing.
Her policy background came in handy when she joined several similar food companies and worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to craft a new certification for non-GMO products, which she called a “disruptive change” to the industry.
“Given that the livestock industry is the largest buyer of GMO crops, this certification was a big win for products like ours. Otherwise, it’s really difficult to differentiate our product in the marketplace,” she said. “It very much adheres to our mission and what consumers are looking for.”
The company is also working to get their meat into communities that might not otherwise be served by partnering with school districts and hospitals. So far, their meat is served in school cafeterias in Oakland and Pittsburg, Calif., and is the exclusive beef supplier to Stanford Health Care centers.
She urged Sanford students to come up with their own definitions of success that include doing what makes them happy and answers their passions, as well as taking advantage of riskier opportunities while they are young and have fewer responsibilities.
“Don’t ignore that voice that says, ‘This area or this topic or issue is so interesting to me, I want to learn more,’” she said. “I never in a million years thought I was going to be running a meat company. I became obsessed.”