Sustainable Practises to Better the People and the Planet with Simon Eriksen

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Our chat with Simon Eriksen, CEO of Neat Meat taught us so much about the paddock to plate journey of the animal and the importance of traceability – the biggest thing for food consumption going forward.

We learn about the conversations with farmers and the work that goes into delivering best practise.

Simon also teaches us about the importance of soil health and how looking after the soil can have a direct impact on what we are eating.

Neat Meat works closely with farmers who are committed to best practise farming. They care for their animals and farm their land ethically and sustainably and here we are taken on this journey to gaining a much better insight into this fascinating industry.

In this podcast Simon shares three things we, as consumers, can take away in terms of buying and consuming meat.

You can listen to this podcast here.

READ THE CHAT HERE:

Simon Eriksen – Founder and CEO of Neat Meat

Simon Eriksen grew up on an idyllic Gisborne sheep and beef farm. After University, he spent a bit of time in the UK working on a pig farm and then came back to New Zealand and that was the birth of his business, Neat Meat.

Neat Meat works closely with farmers who are willing to over commit when it comes to farming practices and deliver really good quality products to the market. This farming practice includes looking after their animals and their land ethically and sustainably.

And it also means Neat Meat has invested in world leading machinery and packaging technology with the highest environmental credentials and above all, they stay innovative in keeping or continuing to deliver the best to the customer while looking after the planet and the people.

Simon

Neat Meat is 20 years old this year. The journey started when I returned back from the UK in ’99, got a job as a farm consultant but I thought, well, I'm young enough to try something myself and if it doesn't work, I'll recover. It's been a really interesting journey. It started with just me and my little Subaru car and over the 20 years we've sort of grown it to about 85, 90 people now, so it's a good business.

Good Change

So taking a step backwards, tell us about your upbringing. Where did you grew up in Gisborne?

Simon

Yeah, I did grow up in Gisborne. Well, that was my 1st 13 years. So we grew up in the back block because dad was a sheep and beef farmer. Being the eldest son, I was taught how to kill sheep and process them. My local school was 32 people, I think two classrooms. While everyone else was doing Maths and English, we were playing Bull Rush and then from 13 onwards I was sent, like my brothers, to Auckland to carry on my schooling, then Massey University. I did an Agri-Business degree and then headed  overseas.

Good Change

So what inspired you to get into this? A more sustainable approach – was this based on something you experienced growing up, or what was your driver for creating and bringing the values that Neat Meats’ working towards today?

Simon

Primarily, we work in an industry where we’re sort of sandwiched in the middle of hospitality and retail, if you like. And the meat industry itself, which is comprised of farming and the processes, and they're two of the largest industries in New Zealand. Hospitality tourism versus the primary industry, and the primary industry hasn't evolved in a hundred years plus, it's still done the same way. The markets are very traditional. The way we process is traditional. The language used between farmer and processor is still the same awkward language. And so listening to these conversations, that sort of kept driving into me that something fundamentally wrong with the way in which we communicated was, I suppose, priority in how we bought and sold meat.

One team was trying to drive the price down. The other team  -  it was costing more to the farm and it was going to cost them more to farm if they're going to do it in a sustainable way, the short term, anyway. So just listening to all of that made me think, well, there's got to be a better way of doing it. We have to convince consumers at the end of the day that that's our job. We're marketing. We're communicating with the consumer around why they need to understand the value of paying for sustainably farmed meat, because we all have a responsibility to do so.

I mean, nowhere in the world other than what we're doing, as far as I'm aware, does any meat product or food product build the environmental costs and production into the selling price. It’s a huge education process for people. Most consumers in New Zealand don't really have a problem with what they see driving down the road in the country with the sheep and beef. They don't know what's going on below the ground or within the animal. Pigs and chickens are a bit different because of all the press that's come that way.

So naturally, other brands in that area have benefited from going into free range and other things.

Good Change

But would you say that consumers more consumed now about the whole ‘paddock to plate’ transparency?

Simon

I think traceability is paramount. I mean, it's trust. Traceability is, I think, going to be the biggest thing for food consumption going forward.

Good Change

Is that a trend you’re seeing in this industry?

Simon

Yeah. I mean, Asia especially are because there's so much, I suppose, fraud. And so people don't trust what they're eating or where it's coming from. But that's a trust thing from that level. What we're trying to do is put more value into it by telling people, “okay not only can you trust the product, we're going to tell you where it comes from as well”. And that's always been a problem in a really old industry to be able to trace meat from farm to plate.

Good Change

So when you choose your farmers or suppliers, do you have these conversations with them and help them with some best practices?

Simon

Not really, I mean, the farmers we talk to are already doing it. The majority of New Zealand farmers are arguably still farming to their best ability. Not many farmers go out of their way to pollute or do something bad? They just don't know what they can change to make it work better. Organic farming used to be around when I was at Massey. They weren’t really the best farms and were quite run down. I think it was more the psyche of organic farming back then, but it's cheaper to run an organic farm now than a non-organic farm.

So they just understand how to run their farm better. What we've done is once we've got the meat, we then start working out “Okay - what is it that we need to do now to continue that sustainable journey to when the consumer gets it?”

Good Change

So, Simon, you hear meet lovers talking a lot about grass feed. What does that actually mean?

Simon

In New Zealand, it's a funny one, because there's very little grain fed anyway. The conversation around grass fed meat is typically the US, so there's huge demand in the US for grass fed meat, and that's playing havoc with the commodity markets around the world for lean meat. World standards data, something like McDonald's has to be 66% chemical lean. What that means is 66% meat. We never used to have that. So basically, these big countries have to import a lot more grass fed meat. The key here, though, is getting that quality piece right.

So it is a health thing. I mean, at the end of the day, grass fed beef is higher in Omega, and it's actually got a better flavor profile.

And you actually have a perception that there's a happy cow out there in the paddock that's eating a lovely pasture.

That's right. I mean, cows have two stomachs, they are purposely designed to digest grass. They were born to eat grass, their teeth, everything about the cow was about grass.

Good Change

For our listeners out there saying, well, some might not eat a lot of meat. Some might be on Keto diets, but anyone looking for health reasons to do something better with meat. What are some of the things when they're standing in the supermarket that they should be looking at?

I think the biggest thing is probably your small goods. If anything, small goods, you can hide all sorts of nasties in those. And they're not dangerous. They're just not full of nutrition. So naturally, the cheaper the sausage you buy there is a reason for that. I always laugh at it when I see a sausage that's cheaper than the raw material they put into it. I say so what happened there? And unfortunately, New Zealand's cuisine, if anything, is a sausage. Every kid eats a sausage right? And so the primal, steak cuts are sort of a given.

I could sit here and say, well, when you look at a Sirloin, make sure it's not shiny and red like the supermarkets advertise, make sure it's got a bit of marbling in it, because that's the perfect steak. An animal when it grows, it grows bone, then it develops the meat. When it finishes growing the meat, it creates the marbling, so a fully finished animal has to create those characteristics. So when you're eating meat, you're looking for a fully finished animal that's been grown, and you can tell by its color, you can tell why it's marbling.

Good Change

I don't think some of the listeners would even know what marbling is. What is marbling?

Simon

Marbling's the intramuscular fat. So it's a different fat to the external fat. So when you cook it, it dissolves into the meat. And that's where you get that sort of flavor profiling from. And that sort of juicy tenderness and succulence.

New Zealand lacks that conversation around primals and steak cuts and rump steaks. You know what rump cuts you should get and what sirloin you should get. The back steak, if you like the top of the shoulders, the Chuck? Then it turns into the Scotch. The it turns into the Sirloin and turns into the Rump. It's actually one long muscle.  At different points in the animal, and depending on the work that it does, would dictate its tenderness. Hence why the Scotch Fillet is always the most tender. Or the Eye Fillet is the most tender because it doesn’t NO work.

Good Change

From your experience with the good quality meat and we’ve heard about the bad quality meat in the market have you heard any feedback from your customers experiencing different health effects from different sorts of varieties of meat?

Simon

Absolutely. You’ve got a strong following in organic. We know some people who, their children were inoculated and it had a devastating impact on their health and they changed their diet in their family and went strictly organic. That’s just for them and everyone’s different. So we’ve used that when other people have mentioned these problems we’ve suggested well maybe these products are for you. Then this whole thing of sustainable farming, in Taupo for example, theres far less inputs in the meat so you eat what they eat. Even with the small goods, whatever you put in there is what other people are eating so we make it as natural as we possibly can. I just heard on the radio this morning the Diabetes Type 2 epidemic in NZ and one of these doctors talking about the Keto diet. Its massive. We blame meat but we all know that processed foods and sugars are the real problem in every food. I don’t eat meat that often and when I do I eat really good meat and I don’t eat massive portions either. Everything’s in balance. Man has been eating meat for much longer than most other foods right and I think what we’re getting to now is working out what things are going to be sustainable in terms of the way we farm, the way we eat.

Good Change

We hear about organic, but you also hear this catch phrase of biodynamic farming. What are the differences?

Simon

Biodynamic, they use pretty much only renewable natural sorts of fertilizer like manure, and that's that sort of thing and they put that into cow's horn and they'll hang it from a tree and do all sorts of other types of things. Organic there are other things you can use other natural fertilizers that you can use on your farm to help stimulate soils and everything. So ones just a more extreme version of the other, I suppose the best way to explain it.

Good Change

And you've told a little bit about soil health. I'm just wondering how important is soil health?

Simon

I think soil health is the nucleus. I think it's the nirvana of it all. Forget the fact that we’re farming, we're actually just really good growers of grass, but we are looking after our soils and the quality of the grass that comes from those soils is a product of the quality of the soils and everything in that grass. Remember, if an animal can only eat one thing its grass, and all the nutrients they need to be in that grass to make it a healthy animal, unlike a human being that has to eat how many different types of food to tickle those boxes, a cow just eats grass.

Good Change

I'm aware that there's only a certain number of, is it microbes or levels of soil health that are left in our soil these days. By buying Neat Meat products or buying good quality meat how can we support soil health?

Simon

Soil health -  you got to leave it compacted together. Every time you turn it, which is typically what you do to grow crops you release carbon.  Massive amounts of carbon. So the biggest release of carbon in the atmosphere is actually from the soil when you till it. And it's kind of one of those things, we don't want to talk about, but it's the truth

but when you hold the soil together it creates those microbes that you just talked about and you get it back in harmony. The less you do with your soil and leave it and nurture it, the more of those microbes you put back. So it's not that we're running out.  We can always put back in again. It takes a few years, but you only have to go around some of this country.  I mean, when we were in Te Anau at one of our organic farms a couple of years ago, one farm was organic and the farm next door was not organic and a farmer got a spade and on the one side of the fence dug it up and it was rich dark soil with hundreds of worms.  He got over the fence and could not get the spade in the ground. The same rainfall. It was only a meter away from each other. That soil, I've never seen such rich soil , and it was a pretty harsh environment. Not a huge amount of rainfall, but they just knew what to do to make the soil completely imbalance. You only have to see that to understand what good and bad looks like.

Good Change

Yeah, and I quite like what you're saying before, Simon, about what we put into the meat gets put into us, so it just makes you appreciate the whole chain a bit more. Do you feel that you were ahead of the curve and it's starting to reap some benefits now?

Simon

We are pretty much the only organic brand in New Zealand in terms of beef and lamb. We're really the only main free range pork brand as well, and for us, it's important to have those three species together because it's not just about beef, its about all animals that grow on soil and what impact they have. You know that part of our business is growing much faster than anything else so genuinely, I think consumers are demanding a lot more. But still, we're only just scratching the surface. I mean, people don't even know where to get it, they don't know how to access it, they don't know the full story. People don't have a long time to stop and look at a product so there's a lot of work for us to complete this journey with consumers to actually get their attention and tell them about what's going on cause it's a paradigm shift once they do move.

Good Change

One of the things I've recently learnt. One of your brands that is under the Neat Meat umbrella, Harmony, the sausages have got a natural casing around them in its real meat in there. I think you mentioned before, you know you might get forty percent meat or fifty percent meat in a standard sausage with a is it a synthetic casing that you'd put around?

Simon

Yeah, I mean the thing is that synthetic casings, they're cheaper and they’re uniform some machines can pump them out much faster. If you use natural casing, you do get an irregular shape, so they have to be handmade. It's a work of love, you know, sausage and small goods from everything from the skin that you put it in. Our sausage makers don't share each other secrets with each other. They think they're so good and they are.

Good Change

When people are in the supermarkets and they're wanting to buy a piece of meat.

what are some of the things from a health point of view that they should look at and consider when buying that piece of meat?

Simon

Well, there's only one thing that's going to allow anyone any knowledge of what that looks like, and that’s the brand. There's no requirements in New Zealand to put on there anything about the product, not where it's from, not necessarily what's in it. I mean, if it's a small good use, you've got the ingredient list, but other than that, you just have to trust the store that you're in unless, of course you bought a trusting brand and you just keep buying it.

Good Change

For a brand to be trusting, what would the top three things be for that brand to represent?

Simon

I think that at the end of the day you go home and research what good brands are out there and how that's done, I'm not sure. But for us, we always know the story of the farmer. We're doing all of our content at the moment, and all of it's going to be, “come with us on our journey. We're going to take you to the farms, show you how its grown.  We're going to take you into our processing and show you how to do it.” I don't know what other way you can do that to get people's trust because they are the trust markers, right, from beginning to end.

Good Change

And, I'm always a bit concerned about the hormone filled meat or full of antibiotics, How can I make sure to avoid that and not just falling for some marketing scheme?

Simon

Yeah again, it's pretty loose in New Zealand. I mean, New Zealand's really moved away from hormones,  largely because most international markets don't want it. Back in the day, you had what they call Compudose, which was a capsule you put behind the ear of a of a steer (so the bull that’s had its balls chopped off). And so what they do is they put the hormone in to make it grow like a bull, so it puts on heaps of weight and because farmers are paid by the weight of the animal so its a return on the investment, so you don't see much of that anymore, but retailers don't need to blame, whether it's antibiotic free or hormone free. Generally speaking, though you won't see too much of it.

Good Change

Whats the size of a piece of protein? Is it still the old fashioned rule of a little piece of steak should be the size of your palm?

Simon

That is the rule but what if you have little hands and you’re a big person? We played around with that. Our portion sizes are a little bit smaller. You used to dine out in restaurants and if you ate over a kilo you’d get it for free kind of thing. They’d encourage big portions like T Bones and seldom did people ever finish it. If they did there was never any room for anything else. Meat portions now, we typically go smaller. So higher quality product but just smaller. We’ve never had any complaints around portion size and they’re smaller than they used to be.

Good Change

So, what would be the amount of meat that the average NZ consumer should be eating?

Simon

I think the standard health guidelines is around 3 portions per week give or take. The average serving of around 150grams. But then you have one person a different size to another person so its chemistry right? And again it depends on the cut. Some of them are richer than others. Some of them have got more product with it (like a lasagna). It just comes down to don’t eat too much, just eat better.

Good Change

It’s been really eye opening to actually learn about the health effects of meat and how you guys at Neat Meat are pushing the sustainable side, the soil health through to the packaging and the end process so the consumer is getting a healthy product and also learning a little bit more about the big differences and health effects that people actually experience with good quality meat versus meat that perhaps is imported or farmed in a different way.

It just builds your confidence in meat as well. It’s just an unknown  for a lot of people.

Simon

Yeah well we’ve got a lot of competition out there now coming from plant based and vegan. The funny thing about vegans is the new vegan is so different from the old vegan. The old vegan was very much around animal welfare. The new vegan is kind of like a trend thing.

Good Change

So do you get any feedback from vegans?

Simon

We do when we do shows. I pride myself that on the last 4 years I’ve pulled probably  4 vegans back into the land of meat and they were really extreme. But, to have one on ones like that for 15 minutes each is not economical so we really need to up the anti on how me message and communicate what we’re doing because I think a lot less people would move away from meat if they knew what we were doing.  

Good Change

So Simon can you tell us three things that our listeners could take away in terms of buying and consuming meat?

Simon

Three things would be:

  1. Take time to learn about what you’re eating. Be a little bit more patient when you’re shopping for meat. It’s a pretty important purchase.
  2. Align with reputable brands. Investigate the brand and stick to it.
  3. People have always been quick to judge farmers and I think that NZ would be in a bad place without farmers. So they are the ones that have created all of these little communities around New Zealand. They have literally been the backbone of our economy for so many years. What’s really encouraging is that famers are being remembered for that now and they’re the ones that work 365 days a year, they carry massive debts, they deal with so many various hardships with weather conditions etc so I’d just like to do a little shout out for the farming community of New Zealand.

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