For the past two years, I've been watching Borgen, a Danish television series which tracks a female politician who rises to become prime minister. The series is quite entertaining and actually addictive, since the stong-willed but principled leader is someone you could relate to: Season 1 began with her riding her bicycle to Parliament. It deals with the conflict of work and home life, and all the intrigue of multi-party politics.Read More
Q: Of all the shocking statistics and stories in the book, what is the one that affected you most?
A: I visited 20 states. I saw things I never thought I would see. I smelled things I never thought I would smell in my life. But one night, I was at a small family farm in Illinois that raised pigs. Across the street was a pig factory. It was at night. The workers had gone home. And as soon as it got dark, you could hear the screams and the squealing and the crying. It was not like one pig over there. Like hundreds.
Q: Did something happen?
A: No. This was just a night on a factory farm. Because the pigs get bigger and bigger and the pens don't. And they fight. It sounded like children being tortured. And it didn't stop. It was the most haunting and most tragic sound I've ever heard. And I think it was because it didn't stop. If there had been a commotion in the barn and they all started making noise, I might have forgotten about it. But this was arresting. That tells me these are really unhealthy animals, that there are too many animals and that they really are stressed out.
- Samuel Fromartz
Joe Cloud of T&E Meats
I wrote a story on local slaughterhouses that ran today in WaPo -- my first story for the food section and one I wondered whether they would take. I mean, how do you write about a slaughterhouses in the food section? These sections generally focus on food, maybe the farms, but slaughterhouses don't usually figure in the mix. So I give editor Joe Yonan credit for seeing the story.
I decided to tackle the subject head on, literally, and lead with the slaughter of the animals. After all, that's what I had come to see. It wasn't only important for the article but for me as a meat eater. I felt I should at least be able to at least see the process if I was going to eat the stuff (others go further and actually participate).
People have asked how I felt seeing animals slaughtered. I thought I would be slightly sickened by the experience, but I wasn't. The men doing the work were serious and careful. They weren't rushed and the animals met their end quickly. (As Tim Amlaw, director of American Humane Certified, a farm animal welfare program, told me: "It needs to be instantaneous -- that's the most humane.") I found the work fascinating. It isn't easy to turn an animal into meat and there is a true craft to butcher work -- a dying craft actually in this age of automation.
The slaughterhouse I focused on, True and Essential Meats, is part-owned by Joel Salatin, the farmer who figures in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. But what I found interesting was the way Salatin roped in former landscape architect Joe Cloud to reinvent his career and buy the facility with him. Cloud was an easy target: this guy loves food and lives on a beautiful farm out in the Shenandoah Valley. Here's the lead of the story:
HARRISONBURG, VA. -- Huddled in a small pen in the slaughterhouse, the four sheep and two goats were quiet and still. A few men nearby in thick rubber aprons cut away at still-warm carcasses hanging on hooks.
"They don't seem to know what's going on," a visitor remarked.
"Oh, they know," one of the butchers replied. "They know."
Maybe it was that awareness that led the men to work quietly and efficiently, dispatching each animal with a bolt shot to the head, until the last sheep, perhaps realizing that the flock was gone, began to bleat. Then she too fell silent.
- Samuel Fromartz
This guest post is by Joe Cloud, who co-owns T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, Va., with Joel Salatin, the farmer in Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Image: Joe Cloud at T&E Meats
By Joe Cloud
It is no secret that a lot of the energy driving the local food movement is connected to schools. Much of that energy has coalesced in the past several years into organizational focus and legislative action to get more locally produced whole foods into local school systems. At the same time, institutions of higher learning are experiencing an unprecedented push from within the student body to offer more local foods in the dining halls. The breadth and depth of the energy driving these movements is astonishing, prompted by concerns about childhood obesity, climate change, farmland preservation, nutritional density of foods, animal welfare, and local living economies, as a short list.
This movement has certainly affected our work at T&E. We have begun sending local meats to the dining services at Washington and Lee and Virginia Tech universities. Last year, the Harrisonburg School System built its annual local food meal around 1,000 pounds of locally-raised ground beef from T&E (produced by a Holstein steer from a farm in Elkton, Va., and a Holstein cow from an organic dairy in Dayton, Va. – how’s that for knowing where your food comes from?). This spring we hosted a group of students – both graduate and undergraduate - from the University of Virginia, who are part of a large multi-year project studying local food systems in central Virginia. They spent the afternoon touring the plant and learning about the potential and limitations for production of locally processed meat.
Recently a group of high school students from a local private school connected to Eastern Mennonite University came through. That week was a mid-semester break for them, and a teacher was taking the opportunity to teach a week-long class on local food systems. They went around to local farms, dairies, poultry plants, distribution centers, and T&E. The students came through on a day when we were running the kill floor. They joked around nervously as we put everyone into process-room hair nets and butcher wraps, as required by our sanitation procedures. I led them through the process room and the coolers, and their eyes got big looking at the hanging carcasses and the meat cutting underway. Then we went on to the high point of the tour – out onto the kill floor where, that day, we were slaughtering pigs.
Naturally, there is a fair amount of blood, some neat piles of offal in trays awaiting inspection and disposal, and a few warm carcasses about to be pushed into the cooler. There is a warm biological smell, difficult to describe – the smell of blood? of offal? – that permeates the air. The odor can be faintly nauseating at first and yet simultaneously attractive at some atavistic caveman level. Some people find the smell intolerable, so I told the students that if they did, they should walk out then and there, and there would be no shame in that.
But in fact they all stood their ground, fascinated. Our kill floor is small enough that an observer can witness the entire process from beginning to end from a single vantage point. Due to the compact footprint of our building, our rail line is not linear, but moves through an S-shape from the knock box to the cooler door. Right after the group walked onto the floor, Phillip knocked a large hog using the fixed-bolt stunner, which caught the group’s attention immediately. A blank .22 cartridge fires the stunner, so the noise is inescapable. Playing tour guide, I explained the entire process, but there were few eyes on me. Everyone gazed in rapt attention as Phillip stuck and bled out the hog, and watched as other hogs were being skinned and eviscerated.
We proceeded to the large carcass cooler where beef and lamb carcasses were hung, along with the hogs. There we discussed anatomy, pointing out where the actual cuts of meat found in supermarkets came from, but I noticed that half the class lingered at the cooler door or listened for the sound of the bolt gun discharging. The death of any animal is profound, whether it is a beloved pet, a barnyard friend, or simply an anonymous pasture denizen. That this process can be executed in an atmosphere of simple respect is revealing. The fact that our government meat inspector literally touched not only every animal, but also did a simple autopsy on all major organs was also revealing, both for the concern for the consumer but the animal itself.
Several days later I had a chance encounter with the teacher again. He told me that the day after their tour at T&E, the class had visited a large poultry plant. Rockingham County has the reputation as the birthplace of the modern turkey industry in America, and is home to a number of major poultry plants, operated by the usual suspects: Tyson’s; Cargill; Pilgrim’s Pride; Purdue; as well as some independent plants. These are very high volume plants, with thousands of birds going through the line every day.
After that visit, he asked that class what they thought of the difference between the mega-plant they visited and T&E. He said the answer was summed up by one student when she said: “After today, I never want to eat turkey again, but after yesterday, I would be happy to eat any meat that came from T&E.”
So while scientists, food industry reps, academics and journalists talk about the future of food,outside the conference room, sea horses bop, sea otters munch and mystical pink jellyfish swirl in their tanks.
There's always a moment when I leave the talk about dwindling fish and the warming global climate and visit a quiet room to watch the giant blue fin tuna. Somehow the discussions about the rapid disappearance of bluefin are all the more meaningful when you actually can marvel at these wondrous creatures swimming about.
That's really the point of the aquarium -- to communicate what goes on in the invisible oceans so that we understand them a little better. The conference takes this a step further by connecting the impact of farming and fishing, and yes, cooking, on our food supply and natural world.
What struck me about this year's conference was a slight glimmer of hope amid a usually gloomy subject. This note was struck in the opening remarks by Aquarium director Julie Packard, who noted that 37% of all retailers were now avoiding unsustainable fish supplies, up from just 20% a few years ago. This is due, in part, to the aquarium's Seafood Watch program, one of several by reputable organizations.
She also revealed a few tantalizing figures from an upcoming survey of 22,000 consumers which showed that a third - a figure I found surprising - had heard about sustainable seafood. And among those consumers, most “strongly agreed” with the statement “I worry about the future availability of healthy seafood.”
There were other positive tidbits throughout the two-day conference. Earthbound Farm - the largest organic produce company - revealed that 44% of the spring mix salad segment (which includes spring mix, baby spinach, mache, and arugula) was now organic. And that segment is the largest of the salad business itself.
For those fretting about the 3% share of the market held by organic food, and the less than 1% of farmland in organic production, this figure was stunning. Nearly one of every two salad purchases is organic. We always hear that organic is more expensive, less efficient, a luxury, etc., etc., but these arguments miss the cutting edge of the market.
Now in its 25th year, Earthbound and its partners farm 33,000 acres, a part of it in the Salinas Valley near the Monterey Bay. By farming organically, they avoid applying hundreds of thousands of pounds of pesticides and millions of pounds of fertilizers, much of which ends up in streams and the sea. The fish are clearly better off. So are the people who work in these fields. Locavores might frown, but for the supermarket shopper the company is bringing an organic choice to the table.
Finally, in a discussion about humane animal production, Tim Amway of the American Humane Association said he expected 35% of all livestock operations to be certified humane in the foreseeable future, based on business in the pipeline. Now only 3% are certified. Now we can quibble about which certification regime makes the most sense, but nonetheless this figure was startling. More than a third!
What these figures show is that markets can change. But consumers and companies -- both pushing and pulling -- have to make the right choices. And if they do, we're all better off.
- Samuel Fromartz
A man took four days out of his life as a corporate communications consultant and actor to live with pigs. (Is this what PR does to people?) "I can honestly say I enjoyed it," Richard da Costa said in a BBC essay about the experience (publicity stunt?).
It was two months before I could eat pig after coming out of thefarm. I finally cracked and hypocrisy played its role as I was lured back to tearing my former bedfellow's flesh with my teeth. And by what? Spare ribs. Chorizo. Plain old bacon.
As much as I hate to say it, they really do taste very good. But I am a responsible shopper now. I think more about where all the things that I buy come from.
As consumers, we drive all production and - by how much we value something - the methods of that production.
Often enough we turn a blind eye to where our food comes from. We may suffer the occasional pang of guilt but this will soon subside with the next two-for-one offer.
So as I trot around in my busy, aspirational, self-centred, self-important and ultimately pretty small life, sometimes, remembering my life as as an animal will do me no harm at all.
Now, here's the video on decoding pig speak.
In celebration of Thanksgiving, I'm offering a photo essay that documents a unique raising turkey collaboration in the one-time poultry capital of California, Petaluma. A local Slow Food group, whose members wanted to raise heritage breed turkeys as part of the organization’s efforts to save endangered food species, got together with the local 4H club, which was focused on breeding another endangered species, young farmers.
"Sometimes when I explain what we do people look at me like I'm a monster," Cathy Thode, one of the project's organizers, told me. "I see it differently. We've raised these birds from day one, we know everything they've ever eaten, and we know that right up to their last breath they were never once mistreated. If you're going to eat meat, well, I think this is the way it should be done."
While some of the images are not for the faint of heart, if you eat turkey, the story is worth a trip.
Images: © 2008 Lisa M. Hamilton
Proposition 2, the modest humane measure that would give animals the right to stand up and move around, passed in California by a wide margin of 63 to 37%.
What this shows is that when humane animal issues are put in front of voters, and the veil removed from factory farm practices, they will begin to support the animals.
Though opponents said it would put egg farmers out of business in California, that criticism ignored a shift that was already underway by major buyers such as Safeway, Burger King, and other food service operations. Chalk this up as a milestone in the animal welfare movement.
- Samuel Fromartz
If you’re considering grilling this weekend, you might consider this recent report, Finding Animal Friendly Food, from the World Society for the Protection of Animals. It surveyed 23 supermarket companies and rated them on humane meat -- the latest in surveys of this type.Read More
In the second installment of the interview with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, the focus is on humane meat, sustainable seafood and local food. The first part of the interview can be found here.
Fromartz: There has been a bit of buzz about your humane meat program, which institutes a five-star rating system based on the humane practices of the livestock producers. When will it roll out?
Mackey: We'll roll it out this summer. It got delayed because we were doing it under the Whole Foods-funded Animal Compassion Foundation but we're now shifting it to a third party, the Global Animal Partnership. We think from a credibility standpoint, third party certification is better. Organic is third party, Fair Trade is third party and we think that will have more credibility with our customer base. But this summer, you will start to see the one-through-five rating. (One being the most basic rating and five, the highest, with background here and here).
Fromartz: Have you found enough livestock producers to fill out the meat case? Are there enough grass-based producers, for instance?
Mackey: Well, it's not just for our grass-based producers. All of our meat will be in the program eventually because if they want to sell at Whole Foods, they have to be rated. But if you're asking, have we found that many producers that have the highest ratings, like three, four, and five? The answer is we don’t have enough yet but we think what will happen. As we create more transparency into welfare practices, the desire to have a higher rating is going to kick in. Customers are going to prefer the better ratings, so we're going to see those getting one's and two's try and get three's and four's
Fromartz: Do you expect those with a three or four rating get a premium over the one's and two's?
Mackey: I do. To even get a three, it has to be a pasture-based system, which rules out almost all meat sold in the United States right now. And I don't mean just access to outdoors but a real pasture-based system.
With chickens for example, "free range" is a myth – the birds are not in cages but they are in a big barn. When the consumer thinks of free range, they think the chickens are out running around in pasture but that's not the case. So to get a three under the Global Animal Partnership ratings system, animals will have to live outside and have access to shelter, rather than the other way around - living indoors with supposed access to outdoors. Once there's more transparency and the ratings are out there, the consumer demand is going to be push a lot more producers to get into organic and animal welfare production – they're going to get better scores, a premium and more brand loyalty.
Fromartz: So when are you going to do more in seafood?
Mackey: In terms of sustainability?
Fromartz: You are selling some MSC-certified fish but it's not across the board. (The Marine Stewardship Council certifies whether wild populations of fish are sustainably harvested).
Mackey: We've had quite a few meetings on aquaculture and are coming with standards this summer on farmed fish. That's probably the biggest initiative we've got.
But sustainability in seafood is a huge issue, and I don't have any good answers to it, because world demand for seafood is doing nothing but going up. I think having good aquaculture standards will help. But of course, as you know, demand is very strong for wild caught – and wild caught is hunting and gathering with very efficient technology. It's the tragedy of the commons. I was just looking at our stores in the New York area, and the only certified fish we had was salmon from Alaska and some sea bass. We need a lot more than that.
Fromartz: Yes, in my opinion, your fish case needs the most work.
Mackey: I hear you but is there someone else that's doing more? We're out there working, we're doing monitoring, we've cut off some species. We recently stopped selling orange roughy, and we don't have a lot of species because of sustainability issues. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage against other retailers who do sell those fish.
I think we need someone other than MSC to do sustainability certification, to encourage competition. When we started our Whole Trade label (Whole Food's fair trade designation), we started working with Transfair and Rainforest Alliance. The competition between the two has been intense and that leads to innovation. On the seafood front, there's only one game in town, MSC. We need half a dozen competing to certify sustainable fisheries.
Overall, though, I am very frustrated about it and I don't feel we're going enough. But frankly, I don't know what to do about it.
Fromartz: You've also put a lot of emphasis recently on local foods. Is it growing?
Mackey: I do think it's a fundamental trend, and it's going to grow. But I don't think the locavore movement is going to sweep America.
The simultaneous trend along with local is ethnic and international foods – Asian food, Middle Eastern Food, Mediterranean food. It's not just in the big cities, there's been a big explosion in different cuisines and that's happening at the same time as local, but they both reflect a growing awareness people have about food. People are looking for authentic artisan food rather than industrial food, or fast food.
Fromartz: Both trends -- imports and local -- are rising?
Mackey: Yes. And there's also whole trade, ethical trade, that's a huge trend that's only going to grow. As Peter Singer said in his book (The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter), the local food movement sometimes lacks a perspective on the globe. Developing countries need to sell in other markets and fair trade gives them a premium when they do that.
Fromartz: So fair trade is growing too?
Mackey: Our goal is to have 50 percent of our foods from developing world be ethically traded in the next 10 years. Right now it's substantially less than that.
Fromartz: I know you need to wrap this up, but one last question: Does anything in the business keeping you awake at night?
Mackey: The truth is the last year was a terrible year for me personally and I had plenty of sleepless nights, while I was being investigated. I feel like I've gotten out of jail, with the SEC dropping its inquiry and not recommending any enforcement actions. Symbolically and emotionally, I feel like I've been liberated. That's really how I feel.
We've got some short term concerns. We've got to integrate Wild Oats, we've got some additional competition, we've got a slowdown in some of our comp sales, and we have an economic environment like I've never seen in my 30 years in this business. I've never seen $133 a barrel oil, I've never seen this kind of real estate crash, we got the Iraq war dragging on, we're sort of in turbulent white water and I don't know what rocks lie ahead because I've never been down this river before.
Fromartz: And your stock price is at the lowest since 2003.
Mackey: The stock was definitely overvalued, trading at 60-70 times earnings. It was a bubble and it popped. But I'm looking to get past 2008 and our earnings back on an upward track. I anticipate that happening next year.
Fromartz: Thanks for the time.
By now, you've probably heard about or seen the video released by the Humane Society depicting the unspeakably grotesque, not to mention, illegal, inhumane treatment of animals at a slaughterhouse in California. Workers rammed the animals with a fork lift and stun guns to try and get downer cows to stand up and qualify for a meat inspection so they could be slaughtered. This meat was destined for school lunch programs.
This video was shot by an employee working undercover with the humane organization and was so shocking it elicited a comment from the USDA Secretary. Even in the wake of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, continual scandals about e. coli in meat, repeated embargoes on US meat exports because of inadequate inspections, this type of thing occurs. The USDA is asleep at the wheel - or worse, has put on blinders to avoid the obvious.
Lest we get direly pessimistic, there was faintly encouraging news on the fish front, where more retailers are moving towards certified sustainable fisheries. The Marine Stewardship Council is the recognized certifier in this field. The Economist reports that:
Rupert Howes, the MSC’s chief executive, says that while it took seven years for the first 500 MSC-labelled products to appear, the next 500 took only another nine months.
Today there are 1,123 products with an MSC label around the world. Although consumer recognition remains low today, many wholesale buyers recognise the label, and demand for sustainably sourced fish is growing fast.
Wal-Mart has taken a major step, with one-quarter of its seafood counter now MSC certified (and prompting a mea culpa from one friend of mine). If you include fish Wal-Mart sells that are on the way to certification, that moves up to 50-60 percent. Globally, MSC certified stocks represent only 7 percent of the fish supply, but they are fast increasing -- and more importantly, putting increasing pressure on retailers to move in this direction.
With the USDA losing credibility, might a private regime similar to MSC's have more credibility in the meat market and with consumers? Will private certification schemes fill the humane vacuum? Or will we rely on assurances from the USDA that it will get things right?
- Samuel Fromartz
In case you're wondering, we've entered a Net detox program for a couple of weeks this summer. Instead of blogging, we're in the mountains eating good food, reading books, having conversations, running up and down mountain trails and generally enjoying ourselves. We're only at step five of the detox program (and this post put us back a step) so it'll be a couple of more weeks. Believe me, it's great.
Enjoy your summer!