The Possibilities — Good and Bad — with Amazon’s Entry into the Grass-Fed Industry

Last Updated on January 12, 2021

A report from Reuters revealed that this past week, e-commerce giant Amazon met — somewhat secretly — with a collection of grass-fed and organic beef farmers to look into becoming a larger player in connecting the grass-fed industry with consumers.

According to New Food Economy, Amazon’s interest in meeting with a small group of the most prolific ranchers signifies that, in addition to its in-process acquisition of Whole Foods, the company “intends to forge new supply chains, finding novel ways to get food from farm to table.”

Our initial thoughts to this news and Amazon becoming a potential competitor: This is great news for consumers and a tremendous opportunity for ButcherBox.

First, our mission is to bring the world the healthiest, highest quality meat — from 100% grass-fed beef to organic free range chicken and heritage breed pork. What matters most to us is doing this while causing as little harm as we can to the environment, empowering people to make healthier eating choices, and overall, influencing a cultural imperative to eat well.

Having one of the most important companies in the world signal that they want to align their business with these same principles is encouraging to us because it means that the values we deem to be most vital are being accepted on a much larger scale than they have up to this point. Most encouraging is the potential benefit for some of the farmers we’ve met along our journey, many who have struggled to gain profitability in this industry, that could have their lives changed by Amazon’s entry into the grass-fed marketplace

We also believe that there is an equally important message that could be sent to consumers if, in fact, Amazon does start to be a player in the organic and grass-fed beef industry: Eating healthy is important and needs to be an option for a wider swath of the population.

That said, Amazon’s entry into this space does present an interesting opportunity for ButcherBox.

While we greatly admire many of the e-commerce and marketplace innovations made by Amazon since its inception, we know that the grass-fed industry is complex.

It is our firm belief that we are best equipped to handle the nuance needed to bring customers the highest-quality meat, free from antibiotics and hormones. We’ve created a unique system of standards — based on our experiences seeking the best meat from across the globe — so that our customers are getting the healthiest, most humanely-raised products with transparency into our process and our understanding of the industry.

There are a lot of opportunities in this industry to raise and distribute cattle, chicken, and pork in unethical and unhealthy ways. We attempt to positively influence farmers and companies, both big and small, to do the right thing every day, whether or not they are a partner.

This seems like a subtle nuance, but it is one that we’ve discovered is a central issue for a large number of our customers.

Doing things right or wrong in this industry can come down to how products are marketed, how compelled farmers are to go beyond the simple industry standards, making difficult decisions in order to get the highest-quality meat to consumers, or, in some cases, avoiding the shortcuts that can deceive consumers into thinking they are getting a product they actually are not.

The last point is one that worries us a bit as Amazon gets into this marketplace. Because we are a growing, nimble company, we have had to hustle to get a solid understanding of the grass-fed beef world. Along the way, we’ve observed farmers doing things the right way, and others doing the bare minimum — and sometimes even less — to be able to sell their product as “grass-fed.”

We have a lot of concern about that increased demand from Amazon/Whole Foods could cause a rise in some of the trickery that occurs in the surprisingly loophole-filled U.S. grass-fed industry beyond the current state where a few bad actors are mostly outliers. Just take a look at this breakdown of some of the practices in a blog post from Primal Pastures a couple years ago for some insight into bad practices that could potentially grow if more pressure to deliver grass-fed beef is placed upon the market. These are real issues that will need to be figured out for the sake of the customer.

We know there are a number of challenges for U.S. grass-fed cattle ranchers to scale their operations. We would love if this wasn’t the case and we will work with any U.S. rancher who has the same aligned values as we do.

Our advantage arises from the close ties we have with our producers. We know our cattle ranchers here in the U.S. and abroad, as well as our chicken and pork farmers. We have strong relationships with them and have been to their farms. We know they have the same aligned interests as ButcherBox and don’t have any desire to play with the lack of regulations in the U.S. that could result in inferior products being delivered to consumers.

And so, we worry for consumers when we read comments like those made in the New Food Economy article by Don Davis, the Texas rancher who is also on the American Grassfed Association’s board of directors. In the article, he says that Amazon’s logistical superiority could be key to the industries growth and also reportedly says that he, “likes the idea of building huge, grass-based feedlots—though he doesn’t like that term. “

This view of large-scale U.S. grass-fed operations — a world imagined under Amazon’s influence —doesn’t sound like it would meet our standards here at ButcherBox. Not only are feedlots inhumane, in our opinion, but trying to scale the natural process of grazing cattle eating grass their entire lives worries us that ranchers might lead to other less ethical practices. These include things we are already hearing about such as farmers playing with the amount of grass and forage fed to cattle or the potential for feedlots where cattle are fed in the same manner they are today, but with processed grass to give them the “grass-fed” distinction.

When it comes down to it, the impact Amazon could have improving the lives of others, by getting them access to healthier grass-fed food excites us. However, we believe our industry knowledge and the standards we uphold separate us and give us an advantage to this incredible company joining the marketplace.

We are looking forward to the challenges ahead and will be more vigilant in upholding our mission to improve the environment, help people make healthier eating choices, and allow more people to eat well, in general.