The following story was written by Heinen’s partner Elaine T. Cicora.
“Trust.” “Transparency.” “Integrity.” Those are some of the ways Heinen’s meat experts describe the benefits of Where Food Comes From (WFCF), a Colorado-based, third-party verification program that puts some muscle behind the claims on Heinen’s-branded chicken, beef and pork.
“It’s all about being transparent,” says Eric Besselman, Heinen’s Director of Meat Operations, whose job includes onsite supplier visits. “Heinen’s has a trusted name, and we want to protect that. So having a third party that goes out to the farms, talks to the farmers, walks the fields, goes into the barns and audits the paper work – well, that’s just great. I can rest assured that after I leave the farm, the same standards and consistency are still in place. That’s a win for everyone.”
According to Co-Owner Tom Heinen, who has been intimately involved in the meat industry since the age of 16, the WFCF program adds another layer of trust to the grocer’s relationship with its customers. “I think customers get peace of mind from knowing there is an unbiased third party behind the claims on our labels,” says Tom, who was introduced to the industry by his grandfather – and company founder – Joe Heinen. “They can see that Heinen’s is paying an outside auditing company to ensure they are getting exactly what is advertised.” It’s a smart move for the grocer, Tom admits. “But it’s even better for our customers.”
While consumers clearly benefit from such transparency, the team says that the farmers producing Heinen’s meat profit as well. Currently, that includes Brandt Farms (for beef), Gerber (for chicken) and Clemens (for pork), all chosen as partners “because they believe in the customer experience as much as we do,” says Catie Cantrell, a Heinen’s Meat Manager with a background in farming and animal science. “They also have great programs. As family-run companies with integrity, high values, and a dedication to quality, they are similar to us in a lot of ways. Third-party verification provides them with a great platform to share that information.”
“Raised without antibiotics,” “no added hormones” and “humanely handled” are just some of the claims that WFCF can verify. “Everybody wants to know how what they are purchasing was raised,” Catie explains. “So why not be open about it? We offer great quality and go to great lengths to find these products, so let’s share that information with everybody.”
For Tom Heinen, this program helps Heinen’s move beyond mere data management and into the realm of values. “I’m an animal lover by nature,” he says, “and it has always been very important to me that the animals we purchase have had a good life. I have walked away from producers where I felt that was not the case. But here’s the interesting part: The less stress the animals experience, the more tender and flavorful the product. So the most important thing producers can do is reduce the stress on the animal and treat them the best that they can.”
“That values component is very important to us,” Catie adds. “One of the things I love about my job is that I get to connect customers to farmers in understanding where their food comes from: how it is raised, how it is handled and how it is processed. We have found that some of our customers very much value organic meat, so we provide that. Others value grass-fed, or local, or humanely raised meat, so we provide that, too. No matter what our consumers’ values are, or whatever they find important in the meat they want to buy, we offer solutions.”
“The bottom line,” says Eric, “is that even if you don’t care about the specifications, we offer a great, consistent product. Once you scratch the surface and understand all that goes into our product sourcing, it just furthers that trust.”
“With third-party certification, we are putting all of our cards on the table: Here is what we stand for, and the lengths that we go to, to provide our customers with really fantastic food.”
That’s a sentiment Tom Heinen can endorse. “More and more every year, customers want to know where their food comes from. Providing that information is a key part of our strategy: We know our sources. The WFCF verification program aligns with that perfectly.”
After all, says Doug Candow, a Heinen’s Meat Buyer and 23-year Heinen’s associate, when it comes to food quality, there is no gray area. “Eating is one of the most intimate things you can do,” he says. “If you understand where your food comes from, you can surround yourself with goodness. That translates into a wonderful experience for us all.