Pasture raised beef. Heritage breed pork. Free range turkey.
These sound like menu items in an upscale restaurant, but they are what Fork in the Road is using to make the next generation of hot dogs, sausages and deli meats.
Hot dogs are definitely on the list of miscellaneous meats that people give up as they gain awareness about where their food comes from and what’s in it. In fact, all processed meats become suspect, as they are typically made from low quality ingredients, masked with colors, chemicals and dubious flavoring agents.
Fork in the Road is putting deli meats back on the table for discriminating eaters by sourcing meat from a hand picked cooperative of family ranchers and offering a new level of transparency by allowing customers to track their purchase back to the farms where the meat was raised.
We spoke with Katherine Peterson to learn more about their products.
Your product labels feature words such as “pasture-raised” and “local,” and call attention to the fact that you source from a network of family farmers who embrace a high standard of animal welfare and land management. But you don’t carry the typical third party certifications, such as Organic, Humane, etc. Why?
We are fortunate to work closely with cooperatives of farmers and ranchers who have developed and live by their own high standards. They are open and transparent about these standards, and all of us at Fork in the Road have had the opportunity to see them firsthand. For example, our hog farmers are part of Heritage Foods, a cooperative that has strict guidelines on everything from antibiotics to environment to feed and breed. The cattle ranchers we work with at Country Natural Beef have similar standards, called their Raise Well Principles.
Beyond this, all of our animals are third-party audited and rated through the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards. These ratings address a wide range of animal welfare issues and prohibit the use of things like antibiotics and added hormones. At a minimum, our animals are rated a Step 1, although many are rated higher. For instance, all of the beef used in our hot dogs is Step 4, meaning the cattle lived on pasture their entire lives.
Your customers can go to your website and type in the Farm Code printed on their meat package to trace the source of their meat back to the farming community where it was raised. Why is this important? What kinds of information do you provide?
So many of us have become disconnected from where our food comes from. At Fork in the Road, we want to decrease this disconnect and believe transparency is key to doing so. Being able to trace your food back to the farm it came from gives you appreciation not only for the farmer who raised the animals, but also for the entire journey, from farm to table.
When you visit our website and type in the code that’s printed on your pack of hot dogs or sausages, you’re able to see where the animals were raised, slaughtered and further processed. Having this kind of information can make you feel confident that you truly know where your food comes from.
It seems balancing ethics, sustainability and profitability is a challenge. How is Fork in the Road making it work?
It is a challenge, but also a balance we continually strive for. This is where working so closely with our farmers and ranchers is key. By talking with them and better understanding the ins and outs of their business, we are able to provide a fair pricing model. When we talk about sustainability, it’s not just environmental. It’s economical too. We want to fairly support our family farms so that they can remain financially viable for generations to come.
Our commitment to paying farmers and ranchers a fair price, along with our commitment to never compromising on quality, means the retail price of our products may be slightly higher than products next to them. This is why education is so crucial. When we have the chance to talk with consumers about our company and the process it takes to get a ham or sausage to their plate, most are understanding and appreciative of our relationship with the farmers.
Why the focus on prepared meats such as deli meats and sausages?
Our leadership team has been in the deli business for three generations, so our expertise is in further processed meats. With Fork in the Road, it’s been rewarding to partner directly with farmers and utilize their high-quality meat in our products.
You’ve stated that climate change is a reality rather than simply a buzzword. As we experience these rapid climate shifts, how are your family farmers being affected? How are they adapting?
We talk about sustainability a lot for a reason; our farmers are constantly working to minimize their impact on their land and give back more to it than they’ve taken. Practicing integrated, holistic practices is key to their approach. For example, many of our hog farmers grow their own crops to be used for feed and compost farm by-products to create nutrient-dense fertilizers. Our cattle ranchers follow the Graze Well principles, which address healthy land management (see the next answer for more details).
Land and animal stewardship are part of your stated core values. Can you expand on the principles of Graze Well and Raise Well?
Raise Well and Graze Well are standards that our cattle partner, Country Natural Beef, developed and that each rancher in the cooperative must follow. Raise Well applies to animal welfare and includes standards on everything from breeding to handling to processing.
Graze Well applies to the ranchers’ approach to land management, which focuses on environmental stewardship. The first standard asks ranchers to develop a set of goals for the health and appearance of their land, as well as a list of actions to reach those goals. Another asks that land management decisions be based on the long-term health and productivity of the land rather than the maximization of short-term gain. Other standards address things like biological diversity and water management.
The purpose of all of the Graze Well principles is to improve the land and retain it for the long-term. To ensure that the principles are indeed strengthening the environment, they are reviewed by Food Alliance.
Why the focus on heritage breeds?
Our hog farmers use a unique blend of heritage breeds and bloodlines, which have been selected for their superior quality as opposed to efficiency. These breeds, including Berkshire, Duroc and Tamworth, have an increased ability to thrive in outdoors and in more natural environments. They also have stronger immune systems and the ability to rear large, healthy litters without farrowing crates. Plus, heritage breeds have better marbling, tenderness and flavor than modern breeds.
Our cattle ranchers use breeds that work best in their individual environments. These include British breeds, like Angus, Hereford or Shorthorn, which are crossbred to Charolaise, Simmental or Tarentaise. The ranchers’ breeding programs are developed with animal welfare and environment in mind, taking into consideration everything from weather to potential predators.
All your products go through processing, so your ethics don’t stop at the farm. As important as what goes into processed foods is what doesn’t go into them. Tell us about how you make your final products.
We are committed to the highest quality possible all the way from the farm to the table. We try to use as few ingredients as possible and work to ensure that they are clean. We don’t add any nitrates or nitrites, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors, or MSG.
Additionally, we use premium cuts of meat and handcraft our products. For example, to make our Maple Honey Ham, we take two full muscles, hand trim the fat, net them together by hand, and roll them in real maple and honey. Then we smoke the hams over real hickory hardwood for a couple of hours, which gives them a nice smoky flavor.
When you look at and taste our products, you can tell they are minimally processed. You see and taste the marbling and texture. When we sample our products, a lot of people tell us they taste “real” and like the hams or hot dogs they had as kids.
One of your farmers commented on the need to “relearn the practices of the past.” What traditional farming wisdom do you believe has been lost since the advent of industrial farming?
One of the best examples of relearning the practices of the past relates to one of our hog farmers, Russ Kremer. When Russ returned to his family’s farm after receiving a college degree in animal husbandry, he fell into the practices of modern agribusiness. He moved his hogs inside, confined them to gestation and farrowing crates, and gave them a steady dose of sub-therapeutic antibiotics. Then in 1989, Russ was gored in the leg by one of his boars and nearly died from the resulting infection, which failed to respond to multiple rounds of antibiotics. The antibiotic-resistant superbug was eventually traced to hogs on his farm.
When Russ finally healed, he was determined to return to a more sustainable way of farming. He started fresh with a clean herd focusing on heirloom breeds and bloodlines. He raised them with no antibiotics, did away with crates, gave them access to pasture and fed them a high-quality vegetarian diet. By returning to these practices of the past, his hogs were healthier and happier than they’d been in years. Seeing firsthand that there could be an alternative to the commodity pork industry, Russ helped organize a cooperative of family hog farms that believed in a humane and sustainable approach. He has helped numerous farmers transition out of the commodity system and into this model.
With so many confusing labels, buzzwords and greenwashing out there, it’s not always easy to source ethical, humane and sustainable meat. What practical advice can you give people? What key factors should they be looking for?
That’s a good question. To be a savvy consumer, you have to take the time to read labels and educate yourself on the farms or ranches the meat is coming from. There are some basic things you can look for, such as making sure the animals were raised without crates or cages, and given no antibiotics or added hormones. Shopping for meat at a place like Whole Foods, which has animal welfare standards for all suppliers, can remove some of the guesswork as well. All of their meat is free of antibiotics or added hormones, and all of their beef, pork, chicken and turkey is GAP Step Rated.
To learn more about Fork in the Road practices, products and ingredients, visit their website here.
What is the GAP 5-Step rating system? Find out for yourself by reading their species-specific protocols here.
photos courtesy of Fork in the Road