Some industry stakeholders believe responsibly sourced meat is becoming a consumer expectation. (photo courtesy of Will Witherspoon)

Will Witherspoon spent 11 years menacing running backs and quarterbacks as a linebacker for four NFL teams. But while tough on the gridiron, Witherspoon is a softie when it comes to animals and nature.

“I’ve always loved animals,” says Witherspoon, who retired from the NFL last year with nearly 1,000 tackles. “I’ve always been a nature kind of guy.”

Witherspoon is even more of a nature guy when it comes to the food he eats. It’s a big reason why he began Shire Gate Farm, which produces grass-fed beef hot dogs and burgers produced from cattle raised sustainably using the highest welfare standards in the US, according to Witherspoon.

“We’re committed to producing great value wholesome food as naturally as possible,” he says.

Witherspoon is touting that Owensville, Mo.-based Shire Gate Farm’s hot dogs and burgers are certified by Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), a food label for meat and dairy products that come from farm animals raised to high animal-welfare and environmental standards, including outdoors on pasture and without reliance on antibiotics or hormones.

Witherspoon says AWA offers the best label of its kind in the US and is proud to have the label displayed on his products. He only had two goals in mind when he officially began Shire Gate Farm two years ago by purchasing 16 head of cattle: to manage the farm and its livestock as nature intended, and to produce the healthiest, best-tasting food possible from that livestock.

But the question arises: Will marketing meat and poultry products as “responsibly sourced” help improve their sales?

Questions about such products also surround consumers. Do they understand what “responsibly sourced” means? Do they care? And are they willing to pay more for such products?

If there’s a Will …

In September, Shire Gate Farm and AWA announced an agreement for the Edward Jones Dome, home to the St. Louis Rams, to sell Shire Gate Farm’s products, which marked the first time that “high-welfare, sustainable hot dogs and burgers” would be served by a stadium concessionaire, in this case Delaware North Companies Sportservice. The hot dogs and burgers made their debut on Sept. 7 when the Rams hosted the Minnesota Vikings.

Shire Gate Farm and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) sell finished products at concessions during St. Louis Rams' football games.

Witherspoon says he was excited the Rams took a stand on sustainable food production, a move he says is “huge” for Shire Gate Farm and responsibly sourced meat, in general.

“The Rams are saying they want to put the best product possible – something more healthy – in their fans’ hands,” Witherspoon says. “Hot dogs and burgers are practically shorthand for bad food, but my grass-fed hot dogs and grass-fed, ground-beef burgers are fit for a professional athlete.”

Witherspoon, who holds a master’s degree in business, says AWA certification is the highest certification of its kind that he has seen. He likes that AWA is independent and places a high regard on revealing the truth.

“I don’t want to put something on the label, or something in the product or something in my body that isn’t truthful,” he says. “For me, the AWA label is the gold standard.”

Witherspoon’s goal is to help create a sustainable food environment, not just at sports stadiums but around the country. He says the AWA logo “is our way of showing customers that we really are doing the right thing by our animals, and the environment.”

Witherspoon believes more consumers are aware of grass-fed beef and its benefits than they were five years ago.

“You heard ‘grass-fed’ five years ago, and the only thing people saw was the dollar signs,” he says. “They thought grass-fed beef was ridiculously expensive.”

Will Witherspoon, founder of Shire Gate Farm, says the AWA logo tells customers that the company is doing the right thing for their animals and the environment.

Consumers might not think it’s ridiculously expensive anymore, but they do think it costs more, says Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, director of sustainability for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).

“Most of our research suggests the consumer isn’t willing to pay more for responsibly produced beef,” she adds.

Witherspoon’s goal is to provide responsibly sourced beef at a “marginal difference in expenditure for [food] that can be viewed as healthier and came from animals raised the way nature intended,” he says.

But there’s a bigger picture. For meat to be “truly sustainable,” including being responsibly sourced, it must be available to everyone, says Andrew Gunther, AWA’s program director.

“It shouldn’t just be available to the elite. That’s why Will is critical to this movement,” Gunther adds.

When the bigger players in the food industry raise their game, and start sourcing local, sustainably produced food, it can lay the foundation for real change, Witherspoon says.

More players

Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest producers of meat and poultry products, has taken its own approach to responsibly sourced meat. Two years ago, Tyson introduced FarmCheck, a program to audit the treatment of animals at the farms that supply the company.

“We know more consumers want assurance their food is being produced responsibly, and we think two important ways to do that are by conducting on-farm audits while also continuing to research ways to improve how farm animals are raised,” Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, said in a statement when the campaign was launched.

Tyson works with more than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farmers. Auditors visit the farms to check on such things as animal access to food and water, as well as proper human-animal interaction and worker training.

“We believe the farmers who supply us are the best in the world, and I think the audits will verify this,” Smith said. “But, if we find problems, we want them fixed right away.”

At the foodservice level, Denver-based Chipotle has done a lot to get responsibly sourced meat noticed. Chipotle scored a well-known marketing motto with its “Food With Integrity” campaign. Even if consumers didn’t care where Chipotle sourced its meat, they were probably aware of the chain’s motto and stance on meat and poultry production.

In 2012, Chipotle touted that its 1,600 units served more than 120 million lbs. of responsibly raised beef, pork and chicken, meaning animals raised without antibiotics or hormones. In beef’s case, it also means grass fed.

Even though Chipotle said it faced a shortage of responsibly raised beef this year, the chain stressed it wasn’t changing its standards for the kind of meat befitting its “Food With Integrity” positioning. In a statement, Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells said, “Many experts, including some of our ranchers, believe that animals should be allowed to be treated if they are ill and remain in the herd; we are certainly willing to consider this change, but we are continuing to evaluate what’s best for our customers, our suppliers and the animals.”

Ells recently revealed that Chipotle was resourcing beef from ranches in southern Australia. Ells explained that supplies of responsibly sourced beef in the US weren’t growing fast enough to accommodate Chipotle’s growing demands.

Truly sustainable meat must be available to everyone, says Andrew Gunther, AWA's program director.

If you ask Gunther, responsibly sourced meat may be on the rise, at least from an AWA-certification perspective. Gunther says AWA is “growing exponentially,” especially in the past two years.

“We have more applications than we can process on a weekly basis,” he adds.

The organization’s goal is to have as much as 5 percent of meat and poultry products as AWA-certified within three to five years, and more than 20 percent certified within 10 to 15 years.

Asked if any large-scale packers and processors are interested in AWA certification, Gunther pleaded the Fifth. He went on to say the fact that large meat companies are considering certification of responsibly sourced meat is the biggest compliment AWA can receive.

Stackhouse-Lawson believes responsibly sourced meat is on the path of becoming a consumer expectation.

“We’re in the process of discussing and working through what those actual expectations are,” she says. “Do consumers expect certification? If they do, and they’re not willing to pay for it, cost will be prohibitive.”

Witherspoon hopes more small grass-fed beef farmers that are AWA-certified will take the steps to get involved with responsibly sourced meat and poultry producers like Shire Gate Farm.

“We want to make a marketable share and a shift that people can agree with and come to and say, ‘This is a product I know,’” Witherspoon says.

Aylward is a freelance writer from Medina, Ohio.