Note: this post contains images of a pig being butchered.
Around the Twin Cities, Seward Co-op is known for its extensive and high quality meat and seafood counter. Within Seward Co-op, the meat and seafood department is notable for its extremely high percentage of P6 sales — often over 85%, while the store as a whole sits around 40%. I sat down with butcher Emma Schroeder to talk about how P6 relates to the work of the meat department.
Seward Co-op does whole animal butchery. What is that, and why does it matter?
There’s a few components of this question. One has to do with the sourcing, one has to do with the processing, and one has to do with the customer education. Whole animal butchery means that we start, here in the co-op, with a whole pig, cow, goat, sheep, turkey, chicken, or duck. Our staff of butchers uses our training and makes decisions about the best way to carve up the whole animal to meet our customers’ needs, as well as pushing them to try new things by making some more unusual cuts available.
A lot of people who are aware of these issues know about the problems with how animals are raised in the general commodity market, with the CAFOs and antibiotics and GMO corn and soy diets. After they’re raised in that system, those animals go into a processing system where knowledge is very distributed and people who are not being treated well do hard work. People who work in slaughterhouses often have one cut that they do, all day, as animals move by them on a production line. Slaughterhouses have a history of labor abuses, taking advantage of undocumented workers, many of whom are women. At the customer level in that commodity market, there isn’t the focus on education about how to use the whole animal — people buy what’s familiar and a lot of the animal that’s seen as less desirable gets discarded or used up in other, heavily processed products.
When you do whole animal butchery, you have to work with smaller farmers because the mainstream meat industry doesn’t deliver the whole carcass. We end up working with P6 farmers almost by default, because of the kind of butchery we do. At the processing level, we get to have a lot of thought an autonomy to work with each animal as a unique experience. Each butcher gets to figure out what the best cuts to make are for the needs of the customer and the animal that’s in front of us. I’m very aware that, here at Seward, I’m getting the opportunity to learn skills that are unique to whole animals butchery and isn’t commonplace for more meat markets. It also allows us to do much stronger customer education. Customers are unlikely to try a new muscle — they’ll try a new sausage, but not a cut of meat they’ve never seen — unless the staff is supporting them and helping them learn how to work with it. There’s also a component that more sustainably raised meat, especially grassfed beef, cooks up differently than conventionally raised meat because its fat and muscle are used in different ways. When you come in as a customer at Seward, you are talking to the person who cut up the whole animal that you are buying a part of. That allows for a ton of transparency — we can answer so many questions because we get to have this education.
Why isn’t the whole department P6?
Our department is over 80% P6, and what’s not P6 is mostly seafood and lunch meat. It’s hard to get P6 seafood, since we’re nowhere near a coast, low fishing limits in the midwest, and there’s not that much co-op produced seafood. We do support Star Prairie and other fishers out of Lake Superior, and smokehouses up in Duluth. Lunch meat is changing. There’s a new salumi producer in Northeast Minneapolis called Red Table that shares a lot of our values, and Organic Prairie, which is a co-op, is also working on putting out lunch meat options. We have an option in every category of our department that’s P6.
What is the impact on the farmers?
We allow for a niche market for the farmers who are raising their animals right. It’s impossible for them to compete on a commodity market with the big meat producers. We make a space for people so they can get a fair price while they’re doing the work to raise healthy animals. One thing we do to support farmers is we actually don’t require organic certification, which is really onerous for small producers for animals. We have our own auditing for producers that looks at every level of animal welfare, feed, labor, business structure, and more. It’s very aligned with what P6 is doing, so we’re making sure that when we say a producer deserves to be in our meat case, we are sending money back to producers that we stand by.
One example of how we’ve impacted a producer is Pork and Plants, a business out of Altura. They started producing Red Wattle pork, which is a heritage breed, and we were buying 1 pig a month about a year and a half ago. We’ve created this customer demand around it, which has to do as well with that customer education, and we’re up to 2 pigs a month. They’ve upgraded from a pig in a van wrapped in ice packs to a refrigerated van. They are growing as a business and able to invest in that kind of infrastructure. Seward’s support is only one factor, but we’re interested in seeing the growth through and helping small producers get to a good point. We want to help them get to a scale that works for them.
The price difference between P6 meat at Seward and conventional meat at a corporate grocery store can be shocking. Why is meat so expensive?
Well, the first thing is that we really need to ask, is: why is that other meat so cheap? There’s a lot of subsidies that go into the conventional meat system, in direct subsidies, subsidized feed production, access to crop insurance, access to affordable loans, and more. Small producers aren’t getting that public money that’s supporting the conventional system, and those costs are being passed on to the taxpayer. That imbalance puts the producers we work with at a disadvantage in price right away.
Unlike the conventional system, we’re not outsourcing the cost to the land in the form of soil degradation, we’re not paying people poorly. The cost of our meat represents the reality of supporting a family raising animals, a small to mid-level processor staying in business, and a co-op staying in business. It’s healthier, so it goes further nutrient-wise. We’ve committed to keeping some choice cuts like pork shoulder, ground beef, and sliced turkey, at a reasonable cost. When the cost of beef went up, we were careful to distribute that away from ground beef.
Seward is training in a bunch of new butchers in advance of the new store opening. How is that going?
Butchering is definitely a skill, and there’s not a lot of training opportunities for it. The closest training for whole animal butchery that’s currently operational is in Brooklyn, and there’s one opening in Chicago. As part of the capitalization of the new store, we’re training in the new apprentice butchers at a slower pace so we can really focus on their education, and it doesn’t come out of our department’s labor budget. The goal is for people to be able to handle a day’s load of butchering and be able to plan for the following days after three months of training. We’re investing in their learning so that we can maintain the standards that we’ve set and people expect from our store.
You’re starting your own meat business. How does that tie into what you’ve learned at Seward?
Yes, I’m the founder of Chubby Bunny, a rabbit farm that’s located in backyards across the Twin Cities. From working at Seward, I was able to see that there was a hole in the market. There had been one rabbit supplier that shut down, so I saw potential for a pastured rabbit system. My experience at Seward gave me the support and access to the meat industry so that I could create a sustainable business. I have access to people who know how to do this kind of thing and who are interested in doing something different. My coworkers are really supportive.
How is the kind of butchering that Seward Co-op’s doing tied into broader trends?
We’re leading the trend towards farm to table in a big way. One factor we’re seeing right now is that people go out to farm to table restaurants, they want a nice cut, so how do you get a nice cut? You come to a shop like us. People are changing what they think of as healthy so there’s more commitment to a healthy animal, healthy fats. There’s decentralization of the meat system by smaller shops committing to whole animals with things like the St Paul Meat Shop and Red Table. We’ll find a bottleneck in that there’s not enough people who can have those skills and meet that need. Erik Sather, who just left the position of managing our department, came from a meat cutting background as well as a haute cuisine farm to table background. Having managed and expanded the Seward Meat Department, he’s starting Lowry Hill Meats that combines all three, which is on the edge of a trend — you can buy your meat, have a sandwich and a beer, talk to your butcher, and support local food. That’s an extension of the transparency we’re building at Seward.
Any final thoughts?
I always come back to, we can’t have a healthy earth without healthy animals, and supporting a P6 meat system is essential to that.