Cooks Venture raises US$10m to disrupt US chicken industry and develop regenerative feed model
The independent, vertically-integrated producer said the financing will give it working capital and will support its research and development activities.
SJF Ventures and Cultivian Sandbox led the investment round. Also participating was angel investor, Larry Schwartz, and John Roulac, producer of an upcoming US documentary on regenerative agriculture, Kiss the Ground.
Cooks Venture is headquartered in New York with operations in Arkansas and Oklahoma. It launched in spring 2019, but, over the past 11 years, its team has been refining crop and breeding techniques to support production today of millions of slow-growing chickens per year, birds that directly contrast with the US standard, the industrial bred broiler.
“Our bird livability is 98+% compared to around 93% for mainstream broiler chickens. It is a healthier bird. We have accounted for that scientifically and submitted that documentation to the USDA. We are approved to write on our packaging that our breed comes from a healthier pedigree of livestock that mainstream breeds,” said founder and CEO of Cooks Ventures, Matthew Wadiak.
But to really upend the long-serving US poultry production model, Cooks Venture is looking to apply regenerative agricultural practices to poultry feed and breeding. The farming method it promotes is one that builds organic matter in the soil with the goal of sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.
Its birds take around 60 days to grow, they are raised on a single-stage meal-based feed, one that is currently based on non-GMO soy and corn.
Partnership with Food ID
Furthermore, through a new partnership with Food ID, a company set up by natural meat stalwart, Bill Niman, Cooks Venture has become the first company in America to test for synthetic inputs; it says it can now independently validate that it never uses antibiotics and that it provides verified non-GMO feed to its birds.
“Food ID tests for the presence of antibiotics and other adulterants in meat. It is the first test of its kind, and can be done for a few dollars, on the spot, and in real time, giving results on the use of those inputs. We have been working with Food ID since March 2020 and have tested all our flocks.
“The reason why we should test is that verification via paperwork is inadequate; we have seen a lot of label fraud associated with organic and non-GMO products, especially organic products that are imported and falsified at ports, but there is also label fraud associated with claims, specifically around antibiotics.
“If you out there shopping for what you believe to be a product of higher quality, a product free of antibiotics, hormones or ractopamine, and you are spending time and money and feeding your family and friends off of that, you should be able to get what you think you are getting,” said founder and CEO of Cooks Ventures, Matthew Wadiak.
Wadiak vision is a new type of environmentally and economically sustainable food system. He is also a former COO and founder of Blue Apron, a US meal-kit firm that grew to $795m in sales in just five years before launching an IPO.
Regenerative feed model
A lot of the work the company is focused on now, and which the funding will go towards, is developing feed alternatives that work in a regenerative system.
"So we have just brought on a PhD in poultry science nutrition, and a regenerative feed manager to build new poultry diets that are selected into breed. In our 800 acres farm breeding facility we have the space set aside and now the talent and leadership to specifically select pedigree birds into alternative diets to reduce the use of corn and soy, which is not being studied at all,” he told us.
The breed and the bird are part and parcel, he said.
“You need a slow growing breed to do it. Enzymatically, you need a bird that has the digestive ability [for these feed alternatives]. Mainstream breeds have been selected on corn and soy feed for the past 70 years,” said the CEO.
Having the right macronutrient and micronutrient and amino acids blends in the feedstock is essential, of course. The novel poultry diets the company is exploring might include red winter wheat, sorghum, sunflower, lupins and field peas and a few other protein substitutes, he explained.
“If you look at the old avian diets, state by state in the US, most chickens were eating some kind of meat rendering [products] in the 1920s; you have to replace those meat rendering [products] with some high protein alternative that is not soy, so that is the challenge, finding an alternative protein that we can select for.
“You can make progress pretty quickly by managing selection through the whole chain of birds [from great-grandparent all the way down to parent and to broiler] and measuring feed efficiency. If we are able to do that, we can really make a shift in how land is managed and how birds can thrive on alternative feeds that can also reduce the need for inputs in soil and build farmer security.”
The muscle texture of Cooks Venture’s chicken meat is much finer as the bird has the chance to develop muscle structure, he said. Its chicken meat always come out on top in any blind taste testing, added the founder.
“We select for bone density first, then organ health, and immune system. Our birds, even at 40 days ,are still quite skinny, then they start putting on muscle around the 40-day range. A mainstream broiler bird is putting on meat consistently from day one, but if a bird is only putting on meat towards the end of its life, you have young muscle that is really tender but really developed muscle. The meat from our birds has really good body confirmation, we are getting a good yield on the bird, but at the same time the meat is more tender, more flavorsome than [a typical chicken breast]. We are aspiring for higher quality meat and flavor.”
Through a distribution deal with Fresh Direct for the East Coast, the Cooks Venture chicken has become that retailer's best-seller:
“We are selling in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and in Washington DC, through them and some other partners. In the Midwest, we just launched this week in Kowalski's, a grocery chain there. In the South, we are in Whole Foods Market, and, on the West coast, we are in a host of different markets. We are also selling on e-commerce retailer sites nationally.”