When May-Britt Wilkens returned to Germany after years in China in 2016, the first thing she really wanted was a steak. She had avoided meat altogether in Beijing amid concerns about food safety issues, but back in Hamburg, she struggled finding meat in supermarkets that met her animal-welfare standards.
That led her to start Besserfleisch (German for “better meat”), a website that connects consumers directly to cows. Ms. Wilkens and her partner, Brian Lettkemann, work with nine organic farmers to sell 5-kilogram (11-pound) meat packages ranging in price from €99 ($114) for “beef surprise,” a assortment of cuts, to €199 for a gourmet packet with choice filets. The specific cow is only slaughtered at a local butcher once all its cuts have been sold.
“We want to make people aware that an animal dies when they eat meat,” she said. The service is for conscientious carnivores, who would like to know that the animals they eat lived well and died humanely — and are willing to pay for the privilege. The shop includes a picture and description of the cow in question, with details on the farm where it lives.
The idea is to eat less meat, but better meat. Cowsharing has its origins in the pre-sharing-economy era. Individual farmers occasionally offer cowsharing schemes but usually only advertise locally, making it difficult for city dwellers to participate. With Besserfleisch and other online cowsharing services, buying part of a cow is as easy as ordering from Amazon, with slightly longer wait times.
Besserfleisch makes €3,500 to €6,000 per cow, splitting the meat into about 30 packages. Right now they sell four to six animals per month, and she and her partner are on the verge of being able to live from the business: “We need to get to 10 per month to really have fun.” Since customers pay for their meat up front, they did not need much capital to start connecting carnivores to cows.
“We’ve been missing something like this for a long time,” said farmer Olaf Tretow, who has a small herd near the northern city of Lübeck. It’s hard for him to bring his own products to market alone, and Besserfleisch offers better prices than traditional supermarkets.
The Netherlands-based Kaufnekuh (German for “buy a cow”) operates similarly to Besserfleisch and calls their operation crowdbutchering. You can select a mini pack (3.6 kilograms, about 8 pounds) or maxi pack (7.2 kilograms) of regular beef for €55 or €100, or opt for organic beef at €75 or €140. True cow connoisseurs might like a mini pack of Wagyu beef meant for barbecuing at €160.
Unlike other cowsharing sites, Kaufnekuh lets customers pick what cuts they'd like in their box. It and sister sites Kaufeinschwein (“buy a pig”) and Kaufnegans ("buy a goose") are part of a larger "crowdbutching" network that also operates in the UK and the Netherlands. Pork packages run from €55 to €115, and geese — only available at Christmas — go for €80 to €100. Geteiltes Fleisch (German for “shared meat”) is also a crowdbutcher, showing what percentage of the cow has already been sold in 4- or 8-kilogram packages, for between €90 to €160.
MeinBioRind is another competitor that offers farm-to-table beef, but in even larger portions — customers can order an eighth, a fourth or a half of a free-range cow, with an assortment of all cuts, ranging from €259 to €1,349. If you crave organ meats, you can get a box of those, too. MeinBioRind also offers cowleasing — you select an 8-week-old calf to sponsor through its lifetime and visit whenever you like, paying €300 at the start for the calf and €111 monthly for its care. Then after it's at least 1 year old, you decide when and where it will be slaughtered. That costs at least another €350, and you receive an entire cow's worth of meat, organs and bones.
All things considered, cowsharing companies satisfy only a small proportion of Germans’ appetite for meat. About 3.6 million cows and calves were commercially slaughtered in Germany in 2016. And according to statistics from Germany’s meat-producer association, of the 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat residents ate on average in 2016, 9.7 kilograms of that was beef, less than pork or poultry.
Christoph Kapalschinski covers consumer goods, textiles and food for Handelsblatt. Grace Dobush is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]