Nothing moves the excitement meter for a columnist like feedback.

Even comments that are critical can’t dull that heart-warming glow. As long as people are reading and reacting, it’s all good.

And if there’s the slightest whiff of praise along with what’s usually a heaping helpin’ of complaining . . . well, it’s like you just won $100 with that morning’s scratch ’n win lotto ticket.

So forgive me if I sound overly giddy about an email reply (“Crowdsourcing a cow") written by the co-founder of the company that was profiled in the column. The Seattle-based start-up,, markets “shares” of beef from individual cows raised locally by an area rancher.

After some kind words and a note of appreciation for the positive pub, Joe Heitzeberg, Crowd Cow co-founder, replied to an issue I raised in analyzing the company’s messaging: The use of the phrase “mystery meat” to describe conventional beef.

A story to tell

Those two words are never positive, and when they’re deployed, it’s at the core of a critical comment, whether it’s referring to those overcooked, gravy-covered patties that used to be a staple of school lunches, or in a more contemporary reference, or to the nuggets, patties and other formed products that dominate the menuboard at any number of fast-food franchises.

“Mystery meat” is a slam, plain and simple, and thus I objected to its use in characterizing beef that isn’t positioned as locally sourced, naturally raised and sustainably produced.

You know, like 99% of the beef Americans purchase and consume.

Mr. Heitzeberg acknowledged that “mystery meat” could be a distraction, but he had an interesting explanation of why it appears in his company’s marketing materials.

“Our real point is simple: Knowing the story of the beef can enhance the enjoyment of consuming it,” he wrote. “The term ‘mystery meat’ is a convenient shortcut to point out that most meat available for sale isn’t marketed with any ‘origin story’ associated.”

He then went on to provide an example of why that matters.

“I was at a burger restaurant the other day,” he continued. “The beer list included regional and national beers — including ones from down the street. The water was from Mount Shasta. The wine list was extensive. I asked the waiter, ‘Where’s the beef from?’ You already know the answer: ‘I have no idea.’ ”

He noted that this exchange took place at a burger restaurant, would presume, the beef being served is just as “special” as the beverages.

As Heitzeberg explained, “I don’t blame the producers, the distributors, the waiter or even the restaurant owner. I’m just pointing out a missed opportunity.”

That is a rock-solid point about the marketing of food. The foodservice sector is responsible for initiating virtually every important trend that eventually goes mainstream, and the way that craft beers and boutique wines are marketed — even in the most non-descript street-corner tavern — is proof positive that “origin stories,” as Heitzeberg termed it, have serious traction.

He’s right: Why should beef be any different? Why shouldn’t independent restaurateurs, ranchers and entrepreneurs get together to create stories about the origins of the most important ingredient in their operations?

And to be brutally honest, “mystery meat” is a highly effective shorthand to position one’s products against. Those two words capsulize everything that CrowdCow’s products are not.

It’s tough to criticize anyone for grabbing onto a phrase that’s both precise and powerful.

There’s a word for people who do exactly that.

They’re called advertisers. 

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator