Posts Tagged ‘Niman’
Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States, is a giant among giants in the agribusiness world. Recently, it purchased Natural Food Holdings, which owns Niman Ranch, a niche meat producer known for its comparatively impressive welfare and sustainability standards.
News of Niman’s acquisition was generally greeted with the big media equivalent of a shrug, but I think it warrants a stronger, more appropriate reaction: Panic.
Niman was never perfect—its founder, Bill Niman, left the company when it outgrew his small-farm vision. But still, its 700-plus farmers working in 28 states maintain relatively close ties to the landscape, the animals they raise, and even the company that continues to set and enforce its standards of production.
To think that Niman farmers will be able to maintain these meaningful connections under Perdue stretches plausibility to the breaking point. Yet theNew York Times’ brief report on the Niman purchase does just this. It suggests that the Perdue acquisition is evidence that Big Ag is finally embracing the gentler logic of small-scale, alternative agriculture. On the topic of animal welfare, it quoted (without offering a counterpoint) Jim Perdue as saying, “I think [Niman] can bring us a lot of new ideas.”
Please. Perdue’s entire corporate history is one of rejecting Niman’s new ideas. . . . . Read more.
Scroll down and check out the list of endorsements for Nicolette Hahn Niman’s latest defense of beef production. Blurbs from Marion Nestle, Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, and Dan Barber surely must make Hahn happy. But what’s strange to me—and I’m genuinely wondering if I’m missing something obvious here—is that NHN is a rancher. My point being this: isn’t there something intellectually disingenuous about endorsing as truth a book defending beef written by a person who makes a living from what she defends? Can there be real objectivity in this arrangement?
Let’s look at it this way. Imagine if big wig representatives from the United Beef Council, National Corn Growers Association, and Dow Chemical plugged a book written by a Monsanto executive about the brilliance of GMOs. Would the likes of Nestle, Grandin, Savory, et al. take such an arrangement seriously? Do you think they’d say, “well, gee, let’s give Big Ag the benefit of the doubt and assume they can deliver an unbiased review”? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d mock the hell out of this shameless plugging. They’d call foul and take to social media and pitch a fit.
Well, if the defenders of intensively managed beef production—a principle element of the sustainable food movement—want to be taken seriously, they need to practice what they preach. Instead, they accept a double standard when they condemn every study supported by Big Ag as automatically tainted while allowing–and endorsing–a study defending ranching by a rancher.
I hope Hahn’s readers are smarter than her blurbers.
A version of the following piece of mine ran yesterday in Pacific Standard. To research the story, I spoke with several Chipotle representatives who genuinely believe that they are building a company with different values than those driving typical fast food chains. I believe them.
My argument here is not that we should rise up and tear down all the Chipotles in the world because they serve animal products. Even though I certainly support the theoretical elimination of all animal product consumption, I also know that the order of our world is currently such that we’re nowhere close to crossing that threshold.
So when the third largest publicly-traded fast food company in the world decided to make animal welfare a priority—even if only rhetorically— I find myself inclined to see that move as a form of progress. Honestly, what choice do we have? What follows is highly critical of Chipotle, but also written in the spirit of thinking that this is a company that, as “responsible meat” gets more expensive and harder to source, will evolve toward an all-veggie fast food company. That prospect is not beyond the pale of the possible, and it would be worth celebrating.
Should you be moved to comment, please do so here. Also, thank you for the great comments in yesterday’s post. Tomorrow morning I’ll be excerpting them in the letter I’m sending to the Austin City Council, which will consider revising my city’s urban farming regulations next week.
Fast-food empires—McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so on—fuel the engine of agribusiness. They support an industrialized supply stream clogged with hormone-laden beef, genetically modified corn and soy, and an endless flow of processed “food-like substances.” They support the alienation and mistreatment of farm laborers, who are paid a pittance for their neck-down work. They support meals weighted with alarming quantities of sodium and fat, leading to an obesity and diabetes crisis. Fast food means high volume and high volume means industrial agriculture and industrial agriculture means food that’s bad for animal welfare, bad for the environment, and bad for people’s health (PDF). For any conscientious consumer, this paragraph is, unfortunately, very old news.
Perhaps more surprising, though, is the fact that Chipotle Mexican Grill—the foodie’s alternative for a relatively quick and responsible meal—is often complicit in these culinary crimes and misdemeanors. Despite the company’s savvy effort to brand itself otherwise, it inevitably finds itself ensnared in an industrial system that effectively churns out a smorgasbord of meat, beans, cheese, sour cream, guacamole, tomatoes, salsa, and a steady flow of condiments. Insisting that, as spokesperson Danielle Winslow told me, “our first priority is to accommodate our customers”—which effectively means supplying all ingredients at full capacity all the time—Chipotle has yet to roll a burrito that evades the reach of factory farming.
You’d never know this from the company’s successful promotional campaigns. Through advertising endeavors such as its “Food With Integrity” program, or its declaration that a Chipotle burrito is a “hand crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changingcylinder of deliciousness,” or in-store signs that declare “no prescription needed” (if the meat is antibiotic-free), or, most recently (and virally), a short video—”The Scarecrow“—thoroughly lambasting the industrial food system, the publicly traded company with 1,500 stores nationwide has established a reputation so deeply infused with agrarian virtue that many consumers simply assume that the company really is leading a revolution to produce burritos high in rectitude, low in guilt, and wrapped in responsibility. For the effectiveness of its advertisements, Chipotle is in a league of its own.
To its credit, the company hasn’t ignored the disparity between its advertised ideals and actual choices. It’s usually the first to recognize its shortcomings and, as conversations with company representatives reiterate, transparency seems genuinely valued. Generally, it adopts a sensible “we’re doing our best under the circumstances” approach to external criticisms about its linkages to industrial agriculture, arguing that by demanding “all-natural” and “humanely raised” meat it’s incentivizing the current food system to scale down, decentralize, and return to more authentic methods of production. This position seems reasonable enough, if not revolutionary, given that it’s coming from “the third largest publicly traded restaurant in terms of market capitalization” behind McDonald’s and Yum! Brands.
But here’s the deal: The logic only sticks if the company decides to buck up and honestly adhere to the sustainable food movement’s most basic tenets, ones to which it so vigorously appeals in its marketing endeavors. Two precepts in particular—eating what’s in season and deciding that when the supply of one responsibly sourced ingredient declines you make up for it with another responsibly sourced ingredient—are, according to the movement that Chipotle has so successfully tapped into, critical to achieving the genuine change it promotes. When it comes time to walk this walk, though, Chipotle goes risk averse.
Consider Chipotle’s recent response to declining supplies of “responsibly raised” beef. In 1999 the company started sourcing “all-natural” beef from producers that raised animals mostly on pasture and eschewed antibiotics and growth hormones. Over the years Chipotle has formed strong relationships with smaller-scale beef producers including Niman, Country Natural, and Meyer. Last August, however, the beef supply lagged. This was not an unusual experience. Historically, when pork supplies declined, the company waited patiently until they resumed. Beef, however, is a more popular menu choice than pork. So Chipotle now faced a critical decision: it could accept the diminished supply of all-natural beef or it could replace it with what Winslow called “commodity beef”—that is, factory farmed beef.
Chipotle chose the latter. A month before its influential anti-factory farm video went viral Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells, citing declining supplies of all-natural beef, said in a press release that, with regards to allowing antibiotics back in the company’s beef supply, “we are certainly willing to consider this change.” Winslow made it clear in a phone interview that this change had been considered and a decision had been made. The “short-term disruption” in the supply of beef from smaller suppliers, she said, “has forced us to use commodity beef.” Twenty percent of the company’s beef will now come from producers that typically use GMO-based feed, antibiotics, growth hormones, feedlots, and all the other unsavory aspects of industrial animal agriculture that Chipotle condemns as loudly as anyone else. The company, which insists the change is only temporary, will alert consumers with in-store notices.
Chipotle is a company that’s trying to buck the fast-food norm. It should be commended for doing so. But it must understand that reforming the food system means more than supporting responsible choices. It also means rejecting irresponsibly produced choices—something that a relatively small (20 percent) drop in one ingredient suggests it could do. Having once removed commodity meat from its supply chain, Chipotle should, as a matter of immutable policy, never let it back in. My guess is that patrons would happily accept this stance, as well as the inconvenience that might follow.
To do otherwise is to acknowledge industrial animal agriculture as a viable choice. And when a fast-food chain trying to change the game does that, when it legitimates industrial animal agriculture as an option in the breach, there will be no food revolution. Not even close. If Chipotle decides that, as a publicly traded company beholden to shareholders, it cannot operate without constant access to industrial agriculture, that’s fine. In fact, it’d be perfectly understandable. But then it should stop making ads that suggest otherwise.
For many years I’ve been pleading with investigative journalists with more time and patience than I have to answer a basic question about Chipotle Mexican Grill: how was the company going to fulfill its much advertised promise to source all of its beef and pork from “humane” or “sustainable” farms? I asked the question because I did some basic math and realized that Chipotle purchases 120 millions pounds of meat a year while its largest “humane” supplier is Niman, which employs about 700 farmers. Seven hundred farmers cannot produce that much meat in any given year. So what was I missing?
Last month Chipotle answered the question for me. “Every year we need 20 to 25 percent more of everything,” explained Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. “And the beef supply isn’t keeping up as well.” Of course it’s not. It never was.But that didn’t prevent the company from spelling out a greenwashed vision of sustainability and, touting their concerns for animal welfare, ballyhooing themselves into the hearts of those who want to eat fast food while feeling responsible about it, and cashing in on the whole arrangement.
Despite its appeal to serving “food with integrity,” the company is now planning to admit cows treated with antibiotics back into the beef supply. That is, cows from conventional farms. “We are certainly willing to consider this change,” said Steve Ells, co-CEO of Chipotle. Allowing sick animals treated with antibiotics into the company’s beef supply “opens up their supply quite a bit,” said a former USDA agricultural economist.” Indeed it does. More to the point, it allows Chipotle to bask in the glow of a pre-established reputation for sustainability and concern for animal welfare while taking quiet steps in retreat from that mission.
What really weird is that Ells, even as these supply problems persist, continues to pick up his bullhorn and declare to an admiring audience of burrito eaters that “The more consumers understand the benefits of eating food from more sustainable sources, the more they’re going to expect it from everyone.” In other words, Ells hopes that Chipotle, in leading the way toward non industrialized meat, will spur other fast food joints to the same. This is weird because it’s impossible. Producing all the animal products purchased by all the fast food restaurants in the country on pasture would be an ecological nightmare. We lack the land and labor and, as production costs rose, it would provide added incentive to factory farms to intensify production. But none of that matters.
Because all this Chipotle gambit is about is words.