A mindful cut of meat

David Briggs
Claire Herminjard, who is half Swiss, will launch her business, Mindful Meats, next year.
12/15/2011

On the floor of her rented bayside residence in Marshall, 27-year-old Claire Herminjard has spent the past ten months plotting her entrance into the world of organic beef processing and retail distribution. Herminjard, who is intensely fond of perfectly marbled steaks, is banking her professional future on a longstanding fast-food standard—that every flash-cooked, drive-thru hamburger patty is derived in part from the dairy, not ranching, community.

“Most people just don’t know that,” Herminjard said. But unlike the fast food industry, she noted, organic dairies and beef distributors have yet to collectively capitalize on the meat potential from unproductive dairy cows.

Mindful Meats, Herminjard’s organic beef marketing and distribution business scheduled to launch sometime next year, hopes to reverse that trend by sourcing—at least initially—from organic dairies. Though she has yet to officially broker a deal, she is talking with the organic farms that supply Straus Family Creamery.

As Herminjard prescribes it, Straus will sell her their decommissioned dairy cows, which she will then process at an organic slaughterhouse in the Central Valley. The cuts will be encased in minimally exploitative packaging designed by a posh New York-based firm, and distributed. Other details, of which there are many, have yet to be hashed out.

The driving force behind Mindful Meats is a deep reverence for the greater animal kingdom, for which Herminjard thanks her mother and an upbringing in rural North Carolina. “My mom and I were kind of notorious for taking care of all of the strays in the neighborhood,” she said. “Getting them spayed and neutered, and finding the [cats] that were pregnant homes for their kittens.”

At Duke University, where she studied public policy, Herminjard flirted briefly with the notion of being a lobbyist for “something good,” but eventually found herself in sales at a dot com start-up in Silicon Valley. The move was unforeseen but invaluable. “I acquired a ton of skills from that company,” she said. “I just knew the day-to-day and the conversations weren’t the sort that I saw myself having for the rest of my life.”

Cooking had always been a passion, as well as a release during brief periods of emotional unease. “Whenever I was miserable in tech I’d find solace in the kitchen, cooking meals for housemates, hosting dinner parties and just being in the scene—shopping at farmers’ markets,” Herminjard said. “Half the time when I should’ve been reading tech news I was reading articles about the food industry.”

The concept for Mindful Meats hatched from another for a business involving community-supported prepared foods. That original concept, despite receiving promising test-market feedback, left Herminjard without an answer to the only question she truly cared to have answered: Where’s the beef?

“I just really fell in love with meat,” she said. “And I knew that I just wasn’t done researching, that I wanted to focus more on the source.”

In person, Herminjard is sociable but demonstrably fervent about her cause. She speaks with conviction about bovine dietary guidelines and methane digesters. It is evident she may never be completely finished with her research—the company’s blog, for instance, is updated constantly with thoughts on and links to articles about food industry developments. “Highest stewardship of the land, how you manage waste, that the animal is pastured and how you supplement their feed—those are the things I care about most,” she said. “Organic is a must.”

There are those who take issue with the organic label—how it has evolved over the years, the fact that chain retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco market organic products grown from industrial farms—but, on the whole, Herminjard conceded, its benefits far outweigh its disadvantages.

“What organics has done for consumer awareness in general—the fact that there is now a large demand for products labeled as such—that’s amazing,” she said. “So if we can maintain and improve the integrity of the label—which is something I plan to be very active in doing—then yes, I think it is absolutely imperative [to be certified].”

By distributing culled organic cows—“basically an under-utilized product”—Herminjard believes she is both on the forefront of a relatively untapped market and a part of a larger, long-stirring response to the extremes of vegetarian and vegan dietary restriction. “I think people are realizing that the answer is not to revert to the other extreme—to necessarily stop eating animals,” she explained. “The answer is actually just moderation. Ultimately, I’m a meat company that is very pro reduced meat consumption.”