The Ethicurean’s own Dairy Queen is on the case in the San Francisco Chronicle, after getting curious about “White Marble Farms” pork on the menu at Globe.
There is a growing trend which walks hand in hand with industrial organic—the realization that consumers will feel more secure, and therefore pay more, for “all natural meat.” The only problem is that no one is really sure what “all natural” means. It certainly sounds good, conjuring up Michael Pollan’s “Supermarket Pastoral” of happy animals rooting around in grassy fields with kittens and puppies. The USDA defines all natural as minimally processed without artificial ingredients and colours, according to Powell. But that doesn’t mean that the animals can’t be raised in CAFOs, never seeing the light of day or having normal social interactions with their own kind, or that they are slaughtered humanely.
Restaurant owners are lulled into buying these wolves in sheeps clothing, because their clientele demands meat with a pedigree. No longer can a restaurant list “pork loin” on the menu—it has to be “Mayflower Farms All Natural Pork Loin.” However, most of the brand names with “farm” in them these days are owned by huge agriculture corporations, reaching for brand diversity.
Clearly, it seems like stricter labeling laws are needed. When I see Old Mill Farm on a menu, I know what it means because I know the farm. But the name also sounds good, implying sustainable farming practices combined with a humane outlook and healthy, happy animals. Were I eating casually somewhere and scanning the menu, I would be more drawn to meat items that looked as though they had a clear chain of custody, something that “farm” implies.
How are we to deal with this? Surely a company can call itself whatever it pleases, and it’s not for us to dictate the terms a company can use to refer to itself and its products in literature. However, using a phrase like “all natural” to describe animals which have been confined in piles of their own waste and fed animal byproducts seems ludicrous. Especially since many small farms cannot afford the increasingly polluted “organic” certification, and use “all natural” to distinguish their products from the competition.
Therefore, factory farmed meats like those produced by Niman Ranch can share space on the menu with healthily raised, happy pigs like those at Old Mill Farm. As consumers, we could attempt to control the meat we eat by researching menu items, assuming a menu is available for us to look at online. However, as Powell discovered, even if you can find that meat is produced by big agriculture, you are still going to have a difficult time tracking down the exact provenance, and good luck trying to tour a breeding or slaughter facility.
At home, you have the luxury of researching meat before you purchase it for consumption, visiting and supporting small local farms where you can see the conditions the animals are raised in. You might choose to patronize restaurants that these farms supply, if you can, and to lobby restaurant owners to look more deeply into the sources of their meat. But what happens when you travel? Pop your head into a neighborhood bistro on a whim? Shouldn’t you be able to know where your food comes from, who raised it, and how it was raised? Is that too much to ask?
According to big agriculture, yes, it is. We should eat our commercialized foods “brightly, brightly, and with beauty,” and love every second of it.