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A menu's pastoral descriptions may not be what they seem
Bonnie Azab Powell, Special to The Chronicle
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Sitting down to dinner last month at Globe in San Francisco, I was delighted to see the menu crowded with pedigreed protein.
Choices included pasture-raised lamb from Atkins Ranch in New Zealand, grass-fed steak from Meyer Ranch in Montana, and a pork chop from White Marble Farms. The menu was typical of Bay Area restaurants that take pride in buying top-quality ingredients, organic and sustainable where possible.
What's in a name?
My husband ordered the pork chop, which was moist and bursting with meaty flavor. Unfamiliar with White Marble Farms, I had the house-made spaghetti -- and took home a menu to research the company.
What I discovered surprised me. White Marble Farms is a brand of Sysco, North America's largest food services distributor. The pork comes from Cargill Meat Solutions, America's second-largest meat processor.
It is bred to ensure tender meat marbled with just enough flavor-boosting fat. But these pigs never see a pasture. They're raised indoors in confinement barns, just the way most commercial pork is produced, except in smaller numbers. Aside from genetics, they're conventional pigs wearing a lip gloss of sustainability.
Globe co-owner Mary Klingbeil was outraged when the source of White Marble Farms pork was pointed out to her on Monday.
"It is extremely important to us to use local and sustainable ingredients and humanely raised meat,'' she said.
"We will absolutely not be serving that pork any more. I'm calling Sysco right now and telling them to come pick it up.''
The situation is indicative of a challenge faced by today's restaurants: As conventional producers move to capture their corner of the fast-growing market for sustainably raised foods, how can chefs know exactly what they're putting on the menu? And what are the significant guideposts restaurateurs and diners can use to identify sustainable ingredients?
In an earlier interview, Globe chef Jason Tallent said he put the White Marble Farms pork rib chop on the menu after Sysco representatives conducted a side-by-side tasting with Niman Ranch pork.
The Sysco pork was "all natural," and came from hogs raised and slaughtered humanely by family farmers in Iowa, Tallent remembers being told.
"It tasted great, and I thought, OK, this is something I can get behind," said Tallent, who buys most of his produce directly from local farms such as Capay, Mariquita, Ella Bella and Star Route.
"Plus the rep said if I put 'White Marble Farms' on the menu, he'd give me an even better price," he added.
Defining a term
Tallent said he thought "all natural" meant no hormones, no antibiotics and humane practices. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines "natural" only as "minimally processed" and containing no artificial ingredients or added colors.
"I guess I should have asked more questions," said Tallent, who was mired in his wedding preparations at the time.
The pork has been served at other San Francisco restaurants, including Le Colonial, which also identified it by name on the menu.
White Marble Farms began in 2003, when Sysco noticed that restaurants "were taking pork off the menu because their customers weren't having good eating experiences," says Paul Heinrich, Sysco director of beef, pork, lamb and veal. For years, pork producers had been breeding hogs with less and less fat, but the leaner meat was dry and had much less flavor.
Company representatives went to Iowa in search of better-tasting pork. They visited Niman Ranch and Eden Natural Certified Berkshire Pork, both coalitions of small, publicly listed family farms that practice humane, sustainable animal husbandry. Hogs are weaned at seven weeks instead of four, roam freely inside and out, and are allowed to exhibit natural behavior. However, Sysco ultimately chose Cargill to ensure a consistent supply.
The hogs selected for the White Marble Farms brand are raised by about 300 farmers who have bought the piglets from Cargill at a prearranged "buyback price." (Iowa state law restricts Cargill from raising hogs in its own facilities until 2011.)
Cargill would not identify any farmers or say how big their farms are. About 1.3 million pounds of the pork were sold last year, according to Sysco, or about 5,000 pigs. That's just a fraction of total U.S. pork production, which is projected to hit 21.2 billion pounds this year.
The animals are confined indoors in "state-of-the art" barns with bare, slatted floors, according to Chris Brackenridge, Cargill product manager for White Marble Farms. Sysco representatives had described the diet as "all vegetable." But Brackenridge said that in addition to corn and soybeans, the hogs often are fed "blood plasma, to stimulate their growth, and choice white grease." Both are pig byproducts.
Brackenridge confirmed that the hogs' tails are cut off at birth to prevent others from chewing on them, a typical practice in confinement operations. Tail docking is rare on small farms that use bedding in which pigs can root and entertain themselves, and prohibited for pork sold under various third-party-certified humane labels.
Cargill emphasizes its humane slaughtering practices, which include specially trained truckers and carbon-dioxide stunning before slaughter. The calmer hogs are when they die, the better the meat quality.
But, beyond being bred for moister, fattier meat, and raised in smaller numbers, these hogs' lives are much the same as mass-market pork, according to Gary Huber, coordinator of the Practical Farmers of Iowa's Pork Niche Market Working Group, formed to help address challenges faced by farmer-led, small pork brands.
David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes, calls it deceptive marketing when his grass-fed beef and pastured poultry share menu space with products from more conventional operations with small-farm-sounding brands.
"What can I do?" he asks. "If companies like Cargill wish to market under some invented or purchased ranch name, then they will -- just as tract-housing developments market themselves under names such as 'Oak Prairie Estate' or 'Coyote Creek.' "
He says small producers must keep innovating and communicating to gain and hold customers' trust, because "all of this burden is placed upon the consumer to sort out. Restaurants, if reputable, need to adhere to better principles."
Daryl Ross, who owns Adagia and other restaurants near UC Berkeley, says supply and sourcing are constant struggles for restaurants like his that try to use local, sustainable and/or organic ingredients "as much as possible."
Do your research
"We need to get past names and labels," Ross suggests. "Something isn't bad just because it comes from a large supplier, or good because it comes from a small farm. You have to look at the quality of the food and the integrity of the ingredients."
And that requires doing "due diligence," Ross says.
Today's consumers are already doing their own. Gregory Emerson a Berkeley insurance salesman, is the type of well-informed, careful Bay Area diner who will eat meat only if it's ethically and sustainably raised. He looks for brands he recognizes, like Niman Ranch, or a statement on the restaurant's menu or Web site that shows the owner shares his concerns.
Had Emerson ordered the White Marble Farms pork chop, and later learned where it had come from, "I would not have gone back to that restaurant," he says.