Hacking away at the sustainable meat industry

What role can technology play in helping food companies and grocery stories procure more pork chops, steaks and ribs produced by ranchers and farmers adhering to sustainable and organic business practices?

That was the central question posed by the first ever "Meat Hackathon" (MeatHack) held Dec. 7-9 in New York City.

Hackathons are events where individuals self-organize into teams to collaborate on potential solutions to specific challenges within a specific, short period of time. The MeatHack teams were focused on these themes:

  • Improving food labeling so it's easier for consumers to identify organic, antibiotic-free and grass-fed meat;
  • Addressing the operational efficiency of meat processors, so it's easier for them to distribute products; and
  • Helping small family farms compete more effectively in an industry rife with consolidation and dominated by massive organizations.

The hackathon's winning entry -- an Internet-enabled meat scale and label printer called CARV that can help cut the amount of time it takes for organic meat producers to obtain approvals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Inspection Service  (FSIS) -- received $2,500 to help bring its idea to fruition.

"The pitch had a business model component to it that we thought was very feasible," said Shai Goldman, venture partner with 500 Startups, and one of five finalist judges. "It seemed like it was solving a real problem."

Solutions to ease market entry

The event organized by Food+Tech Connect is actually the third in a series of food-themed challenges encouraging entrepreneurs, farmers, distributors and other food industry stakeholders to find solutions that make it easier for local and organic food suppliers to get their wares onto consumers' plates.

The other sponsors were GRACE Communications Foundation, an organization focused on building public awareness of the interconnections between food, water and energy systems; and Applegate, the organic meat purveyor.

Image of slaughterhouse cows courtesty of pixelpeter via Shutterstock.

"There has never been more interest in disrupting the systems through which meat is produced, consumed and communicated about; people want to know their food is produced in ways that are safe and humane for everyone involved in its production, and they want more transparency in that process," said Destin Layne, from GRACE.

"We're constantly striving for novel ways in which to spur interaction between thought leaders and the public to solve problems," she said. "That is why we are inviting everyone to think outside of the box and reimagine a more sustainable, profitable and healthy future."

Overcoming the data management challenge

The pitch behind the winning CARV prototype is both simple and scalable -- and it doesn't interrupt existing business processes, according to Goldman.

The team behind the entry was led by Will Turnage. Ulla and Melkorka Kjarval, two sisters who together run a design company, were part of the team as well. The siblings were raised on a farm in upstate New York that direct-marketed meat to consumers.

The technology captures important data points about cuts of meat as they make their way through processing facilities. The information is stored on servers and can be used to generate reports for USDA and FSIS inspections. It also serves a second purpose -- it can generate food labels that can be used to share parts of this data with consumers.

The CARV team is already planning field trips to slaughterhouses that might be able to use the scales, said Ulla Kjarval. "All of us on the team really care about the food system and are committed to pushing it forward," she said.

Second place went to Slot for Slaught, a system for managing and coordinating scheduling and processing animals; and Meat, an application that integrates with Foursquare to let grocery store visitors request items they would like to buy.  More information on the other submissions can be found here.

The hackathon entries were judged on a number of criteria including product market fit, potential impact on the system, the feasibility of success, creativity and innovation, ability to scale, potential for long-term sustainability, and how well the team explained the concept in their demonstrations and presentation.

Aside from Goldman, the other judges included Stephen McDonnell, the CEO of Applegate; Tom Mylan, founder of The Meat Hook, a boutique butcher in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Hilary Mason, chief scientist at Bitly and co-founder of HackNY; and Paul Matteucci, general partner with U.S. Venture Partners.

"As an industry, we're moving toward a more sustainable, transparent system, but we still have serious hurdles to overcome," said McDonnell, in a statement. "The group gathering in NYC represents a fantastic chance to directly address these barriers."