The Mustard Seed Co-op’s nine sourcing priorities guide our decisions as we refine our product selection. One core value is “Ethical Animal Practices”: we want to know that the meat we stock is from animals that are humanely treated and raised with practices that reflect our shared values. However, like most Canadians living in cities, few of us have first-hand awareness of contemporary farming practices. So Mustard Seed meat buyer Lynda and I recently set off to visit local meat producers and see their operations up-close. We discussed the complexities of modern farming and the quest for sustainability. We will share our findings with you online and in-store.
Kevin Van Groningen is a third-generation butcher and one of four brothers operating VG Meats in Simcoe, Norfolk County (an hour south of the Co-op). We spent two hours with Kevin and his dad, discussing everything from herd health and grazing practices to butchering protocols, tenderness testing, safety, and prices.
VG Meats raise many of the beef cattle that they butcher. We visited the farm where cattle of all ages are free to move, pasturing in the fields for most of their lives before spending the weeks before slaughter in the protected barnyard where they have ample space to move about and were not overcrowded. At all stages, their diet is rich in grasses, whether grazed or harvested (as hay – dried grasses and legumes, or silage – moist, fermented vegetation). The feed we saw looked and smelled delicious, and the cattle loved it!
VG uses anti-biotics only therapeutically to treat a sick animal – not routinely mixed in the feed, and never uses added growth hormones, which are commonly used in commercial beef operations. The cattle we saw were well fed and showed the signs of good health – clear eyes and coats, easy breathing, calm demeanors. The cattle were lying in the sun when we arrived, clearly relaxed as they chewed their cud.
Kevin then walked us through virtually the whole process of preparing high-care quality beef at the butcher shop. While we didn’t see the kill floor in action, Kevin described how important it is that cattle remain calm as they approach their slaughter. Everything about their process is designed to minimize stress; for instance, the cattle walk on a bed of sawdust to prevent slipping, as an unsteady footing creates anxiety. Calm human interactions and the environmental design reduce stress, which directly translates into more tender meat once the animal is butchered.
Kevin explained their dry aging process – carcasses hang in a low temperature, low humidity environment for four weeks or more – which naturally transforms the proteins in beef to improve tenderness and flavour. Dry aging is more costly to producers, however, as the “dry” relative humidity means the meat loses weight to water loss as it ages. Since meat is sold by weight, the producer sells less weight but the customer gets a much better product. Most commercial beef is processed fresh or minimally aged, so long aging helps set VG Meat apart for quality.
Kevin’s training in food science at the University of Guelph has helped VG Meats to pioneer a method for “tenderness testing” their beef. As every animal is different, each carcass has different cooking qualities. VG Meats tests every carcass so that customers can know they are buying quality, tender steaks. Their unique Meat Mentor app allows you to scan a QR code for information about that particular cut – from its Tenderness Score to the farm the animal was raised on and what it ate.
At The Mustard Seed Co-op we appreciate VG Meats’ transparency about their commitment to animal welfare and sustainable farming. We stock VG Meats so our customers can enjoy high quality beef with confidence, knowing its producer shares our values.
Over the coming weeks, you will see more products from VG Meats in our cooler. Share your thoughts on the Member Feedback board or share your feedback online. We want to provide you with honest, transparent information on our meat producers. This journey of learning isn’t over, so grow with us in understanding where our food comes from!