Kentucky cattle farmers pride themselves on the quality of the beef they send to market, but until now they haven’t been able to know if they’re getting as good as they give when they buy products in the grocery.
The Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association recently created Kentucky Cattlemen’s Ground Beef, its own branded beef that is locally sourced, harvested, packaged and produced.
On March 20, Kroger officially introduced the new product, which is available in one-pound packages or two-pound packages of four half-pound beef patties. The beef is being sold in 85 Kroger locations throughout Kentucky.
Kentucky is the largest cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi River and is home to over 1.1 million beef cows, ranking fifth nationally in total number of farms. The Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, a grassroots organization with 99 chapters in 120 counties, works to protect, advance and be a strong voice for the state’s 38,000-plus cattle producers.
The Lane Report asked Dave Maples, executive vice president of KCA, about this new product.
The Lane Report: Can you explain what 100 percent Kentucky Proud Beef means?
Dave Maples: By purchasing Kentucky Cattlemen’s Ground Beef, you are supporting Kentucky businesses from the farm to the grocery store and everywhere in between. Kentucky Cattlemen are supplying verifiable and traceable Kentucky cows to be processed at an Animal Welfare-approved processing plant as well as a Global Food Safety Initiative-certified facility in Lee City, Ky. The product is packaged at Creation Gardens in Louisville and distributed to Kroger stores out of the Louisville distribution center. Beef Solutions is proud to support Kentucky businesses throughout the entire production process of our products.
TLR: Why is it important that beef be locally processed and Global Food Safety Initiative-certified?
DM: Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is an independent third-party food safety audit that major retailers, like Kroger, require of the processor. GFSI ensures confidence in the delivery of safe food to consumers. Our partners at Chop Shop and Creation Gardens are among the few processors in Kentucky that have been able to attain this certification.
TLR: What does state-of-the-art packaging mean?
DM: The modern-day meat case is slowly shifting away from traditional overwrap Styrofoam packaging in an effort to reduce waste and keep products fresher longer. With the help of the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board, Creation Gardens was able to invest in state-of-the-art packaging equipment perfect for our product and other Kentucky products in the future. Both of our products are in clear, vacuum-sealed packages that allow customers to easily see the beef they are purchasing and do not require repackaging before storing in their fridge or freezer. The vacuum-sealed package keeps the beef fresh for 14 days before its freeze-by date, but also features an easy-peel opening, allowing it to go from package to pan without being handled.
We even took our package one step further for our customers. When cooked, the fat content in beef is reduced, changing its nutrition information. On the back label, our customers can find nutrition information for our products both raw and cooked.
TLR: How did you come up with $4.99 per pound?
DM: We like to think of Kentucky Cattlemen’s Ground Beef as being whole beef, small-batch products. Unlike most other ground beef products, our ground beef includes all beef cuts, including those many consider to be premium. You might be getting filet mignon, round steaks and brisket in any given package. Our beef is a premium product that is competing with suppliers that work with millions of pounds of product, which places us at a disadvantage. While our products are more expensive than commodity prices, they still fall below the price of organic and grass-fed labeled products. Our price point is influenced by Kroger and our other supply chain partners, but it will take loyal, repeat customers for us to keep our price at a competitive $4.99.
TLR: How have sales been going?
DM: As expected, the first weeks were spent fine-tuning the supply chain processes and new packaging equipment. New requirements placed on the labor force required additional training, so we did not meet some of the early demand. That being said, over the 15 weeks that our products have been available, we have seen steady growth. We just surpassed 73,000 pounds sold and have returned over $164,000 dollars back to 21 different Kentucky farmers.
TLR: Participating beef producers must meet a Gold Standard of Care. What does that entail?
DM: The Beef Solutions Gold Standard Program is an animal care and stewardship program that we require farmers to enroll their cows in. It is how we ensure we are doing our part to bring you a local, natural, delicious product. This program is managed by Beef Solutions staff to ensure all of our cows are coming from Kentucky farms, which are then entered into a software program to allow for an auditable and traceable supply chain.
TLR: Is grass-fed beef a requirement?
DM: All of our farmers are dedicated to taking great care of their land and livestock. We are fortunate in Kentucky to have luscious forages perfect for grazing cattle. While all of our cattle have been grass-fed the majority of their lives, our beef comes from farm families that raise their cattle both grass-finished and grain-finished.
TLR: Can you address every step of the process from farm to table?
DM: Beef Solutions’ process from farm to table begins with a purchase order from Kroger requesting their desired pounds and cases of product. Beef Solutions’ procurement team will then evaluate the number of cows required to fill the purchase order. Next, farmers deliver their cows to the Chop Shop for processing. Cattle are slaughtered and placed in the cooler for two days before being de-boned and placed into shipping containers, known as Combo PACs, that will be delivered to Creation Gardens as beef trim.
Once Creation Gardens receives it, they grind the beef and test the fat content to make sure our blend is 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat. The ground beef is E. coli tested before going through Creation Gardens’ state-of-the-art packaging equipment to be packaged. The products are delivered the following day by Creation Gardens to the Kroger distribution center, conveniently located across the street from the warehouse. The entire process takes 13 days from start to finish.
TLR: Why did it take two decades to get these products in stores?
DM: It has long been a desire of our beef farming community to have a product on the grocery store shelf, but before having a product you must first have a customer to buy it. Today’s consumer is looking for local products with a transparent story and process so they can feel confident about where their food is coming from. In an effort to satisfy their customer’s demand for local products, Kroger called on us directly to develop a Kentucky beef product for their shelves.
Kentucky has not had a processing plant with the capacity to supply a customer the size of Kroger for many years. The Whitt family in Eastern Kentucky and Creation Gardens both stepped up to the challenge by investing in state-of-the-art-packaging equipment and the necessary certifications to supply Kroger with the local beef products their customers have been looking for.
TLR: What is Beef Solutions LLC and why was it created?
DM: Beef Solutions LLC is a single-member LLC, with that member being the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association. It was created to be the hub in the supply chain that connects all the dots. Beef Solutions coordinates cattle procurement and payment with the farmers to ensure their cattle are meeting the Gold Standard requirements. Beef Solutions also has the agreement with Kroger and the processing agreement with the packer, as well as the packaging company.
TLR: Where did the branded product idea come from and how long did it take to develop it to get products in the store?
DM: The branded product and formation of a supply chain management company has been around for a long time. There was a document commissioned by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in 1997 that described the process that has been implemented. Kroger approached KCA and asked that they develop a program for a local Kentucky beef product since we already had the relationship with the farmers statewide. Until then, the branded product plan had been sitting on the shelf collecting dust. It has taken the better part of 18 months, a team of very talented people, and several hundred thousand dollars to get the entire supply chain in place. Local is not easy.
For more information, visit KentuckyCattlemensBeef.com and BeefSolutionsLLC.com.
Jonathan Miller is digital editor of The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].