Epic Provisions, a General Mills-owned brand, is the first in the nation to sell a food item that promises consumers its production helped improve the land used to make the ingredients.
Meat-snack maker Epic is the first company bearing a new third-party verification program called the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV) seal, which measures tangible improvements made to the soil through better land-management practices. This differs from most certification programs that prescribe a set of farming methods to growers without following up to see if it actually produced a positive result on the natural resources.
Epic started selling its Spicy Sriracha Beef Bites — the first product to be verified and stamped by the EOV seal — online this week. The Austin, Texas-based brand expects products bearing the seal, which has been approved by the USDA, will begin appearing on retail shelves within the next few months.
The idea for the program started more than two years ago when Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest, Epic's co-founders, met with leaders at Savory Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that promotes livestock grazing and grassland restoration as a solution to climate change.
Savory works with ranchers and farmers around the globe to amend their grazing practices in such a way to increase the microbiology and carbon-capturing power of the land. Meanwhile, Epic deals with consumers, attempting to harness the power of the market to change the food system for the better.
"Savory has been focused on farmers, but we were interested in bringing these practices to consumers to make it a bigger food revolution," Forrest said. "We needed a verified supply chain. Consumers need to understand that component of the rancher's story."
Savory didn't want to create another checklist of farming method "dos" and "don'ts," said Chris Kerston, director of public outreach at the Savory Institute. "It's complicated because we have very individualized plans for all our producers, so you can't just check boxes," Kerston said. "We wanted to flip the script and make a verification that was all about the outcomes."
The group didn't want to focus on just one measurable outcome, but the whole ecosystem.
The resulting EOV program, created and managed by Savory, measures soil organic matter, soil carbon, water infiltration rates, soil microbiology and biodiversity of plant life. A rancher can be a verified supplier if his or her land shows continual improvement. Savory's verifiers will take measurements every year and make adjustments based on weather or other anomalies that may impact results.
"So now the consumer, for the first time in history, can know with empirical evidence that this made the land better," Kerston said.
Both Epic and Savory are champions of regenerative agriculture — a system of farming principles that aims to reverse the global trend of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere by improving soil's ability to counteract it. Specifically, they are focused on the role ruminant grazers play in that process. Livestock, when moved from one part of the grasslands to another at the right intervals, fertilize the soil with their excrement and break up the topsoil with their movement, which allows those nutrients to penetrate the land.
Epic's mission appears to be slowly affecting the environmental focus of its parent company, General Mills, which bought the small food brand in 2016. The company has elevated regenerative agriculture as a pet topic for corporate responsibility. Even Jeff Harmening, General Mills chief executive, praised the movement at a recent speech in St. Paul while highlighting ways the company is incorporating elements of it in parts of its supply chain.
"At the base level, regenerative ag is everything we need right now," Kerston said. "We have to figure out how to improve our environment while still producing high quality food and clothing for our world."