You might think your most challenging dietary decision is whether to eat meat, even occasionally. But once you hop aboard the Carnivore Train, that’s just the beginning of many, many choices that await you, such as: Local supplier or national chain? Regular subscription or occasional splurge? Traditional or regenerative agriculture? And what about carbon neutrality, both in production and shipping?
For an increasing number of consumers, sourcing their steaks and fish filets online has become a real game changer. One of those e-commerce converts is Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a food industry consultancy. “We live in rural Vermont, and options for great meat in our area are limited, and quality can be unreliable,” she told HuffPost. She searched for alternatives and subscribed to ButcherBox and Sitka Salmon Shares. “Their operating philosophies really spoke to me, both as a consumer and as a food industry professional,” she said. “I like that they’re supporting farmers and fishermen with fair wages, while supporting more humane and environmentally friendly processes that result in a great product.”
“What we’ve found is that the customer service with both of them is responsive and friendly, the service is easy and reliable and the quality of the meat and seafood is outstanding,” she added. “It ends up being one less errand for us to run, with an end product that’s worth sourcing alternatively.”
Skeptical consumers became pandemic-era fans
Midan Marketing, a strategic meat marketing, research and creative communications agency, conducted a survey of meat consumers earlier this year. “For several years leading up to the pandemic, shoppers hesitated to purchase meat products online, preferring to pick out their own cuts in-store,” company principal Michael Uetz told HuffPost. But the pandemic turned out to be the inflection point they needed to change their minds. “Our survey showed that in the first three months of 2021, Net Promoter Scores for online meat ordering jumped from 26 to 59,” he said. (Scores over 50 are considered “excellent.”) “Consumers who purchase from meat-specific services generally are big fans, and two in three said they were likely to recommend the services to a family member or friend.”
Many purveyors are confident that this new purchasing model is here to stay. “With the supply chain challenges that happened in 2020, consumers had to seek meat products in new places such as online stores, and when that happened, they found brands and products they really enjoyed,” Dan Stewart, e-commerce strategy leader at Creekstone Farms Premium Beef, told HuffPost. “Now those customers are repeating their purchases, especially since they’ve continued to spend more time cooking at home.” Stewart, whose company began selling directly to consumers in 2013, reported that the demand for online meat purchases still remains consistently higher than pre-pandemic levels.
You can source your meat from Nebraska to New Zealand
While the venerable Nebraska-based supplier Omaha Steaks began selling— and dominating — in e-commerce as long ago as the mid-’90s, the modern marketplace increasingly is crowded with competition, some from many thousands of miles away. New Zealand-based Silver Fern Farms, for example, is a farmer-owned cooperative that ships to the United States. Matthew Luxton, the cooperative’s strategic programs sales manager, told HuffPost: “The meat delivery market has grown to include different product propositions from a variety of producers, including from small family-owned farms and large international companies.”
And while red meat was the foundation on which this sector grew, customers are expanding their horizons to include things like seafood, which has traditionally been the ultimate “you have to see it and smell it before you buy” product. Mike Hacaga, meat and seafood product innovator at Thrive Market, said he’s encountered hesitant customers who think the freshest seafood comes from a local market. He explains about the benefits of flash-freezing methods at the point of catch. “Once I can help them understand the supply chain from the boat to the plate, most consumers realize that unless they caught the fish themselves, the ‘fresh’ clock started ticking when that fish was on the boat,” he told HuffPost.
How to find the best fit for you
Jennie Schutte-Patrick is co-owner of small, independent Pilaroc Farms in Tennessee, which raises, processes and sells dry-aged beef, heritage pork and lamb. While the operation grew during the pandemic, including the addition of an on-site marketplace for direct sales, Pilaroc has not yet made the leap to selling meat online.
Right now, Schutte-Patrick is doing research and watching trends carefully. Unlike most people these days, she’s able to see both sides of the issue. “I understand the desire to reduce miles from pasture to plate by buying locally, but I also know that people are finding farmer-retailers they can really relate to, that they maybe fell in love with because of their story, even if that farm is 1,000 miles away from where they live,” she told HuffPost.
For those looking to make a leap, she had these suggestions: “First, decide whether you want to buy a few cuts at a time or sign up for a curated box delivered at certain times of the year,” she said. “Next, ensure that you can postpone or cancel an order easily. Otherwise, you’ll inevitably get too much meat or not be able to cook all the meat you get, and your freezer will be stuffed.” Finally, she suggested digging deeper into the reality behind what she called “hype words” like “organic,” “grass-fed,” “grass finished” and even “local.” “If you’re concerned about location and distance, for example, do some homework on where they actually source their meat from,” she said.
But is it sustainable?
Like “local,” a term like “sustainable” can have many interpretations. Some consumers have larger questions and concerns about the overall environmental impact of global e-commerce, and online meat is part of their focus. “People feel good that they’re supporting farmers and fishermen who are making efforts at being more sustainable, but shipping is tough on the environment, from using fossil fuels to get the food to its destination, to the packaging,” Webster said.
“Both of the services to which I subscribe, ButcherBox and Sitka Salmon Shares, have minimal packaging that is as environmentally friendly as possible, while still protecting the integrity of the meat and seafood en route,” she said. Overall, she’s still a satisfied customer, and she’s eager for even greater innovation of this type throughout the food industry. “I’m all for finding new ways of doing business, so my hope is that we get more of this type of supply chain disruption,” she said.
Here are popular online options for subscriptions and one-time orders.
HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Prices and availability subject to change.