White Marble Farms: Tempest in a pork chop?

porkchop.jpgI have a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle's food section today — my first. It's about going to the Globe, a San Francisco restaurant that makes a point of serving sustainable food, and seeing a White Marble Farms pork rib chop on the menu. My husband ordered it, and it was wonderfully tender and juicy, with a nice crispy layer of fat.

I was unfamiliar with the name but I thought the farm could be a possible supplier for the meat CSA I am working on, so I took the menu home and looked it up. What I discovered was a big surprise. (Read the Chronicle story.)

Hint: this pork isn't all that it seems.

For those who've read it, I have provided links to publicly available material (after the jump) that may be of interest.

Ultimately, I think the story illustrates that as more consumers make a point of seeking out and paying higher prices for SOLE food, conventional purveyors will want in on the action. It's up to chefs and consumers who care about such things to investigate any claims not certified by an independent third party.

(White Marble Farms pork chop photo by my husband, the Potato Non Grata.)

Additional information

Sysco point-of-sale materials for White Marble Farms pork (PDF)

Sept. 22 Tampa Tribune restaurant review: "The kitchen doesn't skimp on quality…the pork comes from the venerable White Marble Farms."

2005 High Plains Journal profile of a hog farmer who raises specialty pork for Cargill, with similar genetics and methods to the White Marble Farms brand. He makes a profit of just $16 per pig — guaranteed. Article also details why CO2 stunning is not only a humane slaughter method, but also good for meat quality, lowering incidences of PSE (pale, soft and exudative) pork, which tends to be less tasty.

• Cargill Meat Solutions' website for its own brand of specialty pork, Prairie Grove Farms, which is grown by an "exclusive network of family farmers in Iowa and Illinois." The brand's home page states:

Prairie Grove Farms controls the integrity of its branded, premium pork products from conception to consumer. Today an important word to keep in mind is "traceability." If the person behind the counter where you buy your pork can name the farm that raised it, you are taking a step in the right direction.

Cargill does not make public the names of the farmers raising either Prairie Grove or White Marble pork.

Google-cached minutes from a meeting of the Pork Niche Marketing Working Group, a collection of small, niche pork brands including Niman Ranch. The notes describe in detail how, before settling on Cargill, Sysco reps had visited a Niman and another small Iowa farm because the CEO "had a strong interest in finding high quality products with compelling stories that build trust with customers."

Account of the 2005 Farm Journal Forum, where Sysco CEO Richard Schnieders said “The food service industry requires a constant flow of unique, highly differentiated products, and those kinds of specialty products are generally not raised on 2,000-acre farms...We desperately need the mid-sized farms and the products they can produce in food service.”

Details of the agreement reached between the State of Iowa and Cargill under which Cargill will be allowed to move into hog production and finishing, bypassing the state's constitutional bans against such vertical integration on the part of meat processors.

• Cargill representatives mentioned several times that White Marble Farms pork is produced under a USDA process-verified quality standards program. Here is its description.

• There are almost 3,000 current trademarks containing the word "farm" in their names, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

• The only other person I found who had noticed White Marble Farms is Jay, the chef at the Linkery, a San Diego restaurant. Here is his blog entry about it — don't miss the comments section!

19 Responsesto “White Marble Farms: Tempest in a pork chop?”

  1. donna says:

    Good article, good investigating.

    I don't eat pork anymore for the most part. And rarely beef, and then only organic. But with the big companies buying up all the small organic companies, it sure is hard to figure out what's really going on anymore. Something has to end this big-company madness in this country.

  2. Michele Wells says:

    I very much enjoyed your article, and agree that consumers and chefs need to be diligent about checking the sources of their products. I know for a fact that Meyer beef is not grass-fed, so wanted you to know that for any future coverage you plan about them. I also think it's important for people to understand that organic does not mean humanely raised, so I hope you plan to cover this in the future.

  3. DairyQueen says:

    Are you sure? Because Meyer's website for the "program" claims otherwise:

    Our cattle are involved in an intensive rotational grazing system year-round to include both calving and breeding season. All livestock here are only worked and moved by horseback -- no dogs, motorcycles, 4-wheelers, etc. We feel that we have to be good stewards of this land and part of our business is actually in the harvesting of grass.

    Elsewhere they state that their "natural" beef is antibiotic free, which does not usually go hand in hand with feedlot-fed. The beef is also certified humanely raised and handled by HFAC, another good sign. Perhaps further investigation will be required.

    And fyi: I've got a Q&A with the CEO of Western Grasslands/Panorama beef in the can that I hope to post this weekend.

  4. AJ says:

    Bonnie, congrats on getting your first piece in the paper! But boy, the more and more I read and do my own research, the more I come to the conclusion that unless you're an investigative journalist, or militant SOLE food lover, it's nearly impossible to sidestep big-ag in the marketplace. Who knows, perhaps one bright ag-executive will get the idea that going to local farmers markets with CAFO meats will "build trust" with consumers. It seems nothing's for certain until you've talked to the farmer personally.

  5. AJ says:

    Also...is Nieman good or not as good as you would hope? That's another one that confuses me. As far as I can tell, they probably have the best reputation and recognition...but how close are they to the Polyface model?

  6. DairyQueen says:

    With Niman, "good" depends on where you're coming from. I eat their meat in restaurants — had the *best* Niman carnitas last night at Doña Tomas in Oakland — but I do go for smaller suppliers when buying my own. Niman lists their farmers; you can go and visit them. Some may be in the Polyface mold, others perhaps less so. Mainly, I appreciate Niman's seeming willingness to make their operations transparent. They have third-party humane certification and really emphasize humane animal-raising and -handling techniques.

    That said, the beef is supposedly corn finished, which gives it more familiar marbling, tenderness and flavor and, according to some people, changes the nutritional profile of the meat from that of grass finished. Poke around Jo Robinson's excellent site Eat Wild if you want to know more about the difference in finishing techniques.

  7. Kevin says:

    OK, my Avoidance Bubble was officially burst when I finished this article, and it’s probably high time. Honestly, I’ve wondered a bunch o’ times how many “Coyote Creek” meats I’ve ordered under the absurd assumption there’s honesty in responsible food labeling. Naïve? Absolutely. Sometimes life in the bubble is just so much easier. I hope your article gets picked up by the wires and gets the broad coverage it deserves. Stories like this that hopefully pose real adverse financial impact to food growers or restaurant owners who knowingly or unknowingly sell unhappy “Coyote Creek” meats are what will change things. I think the Globe deserves kudos though -- they admitted they were not thorough in their research and have changed their operation as a result. It's refreshing for someone to simply admit a mistake, change their behavior, and get on with things. Thanks for the A+ write-up!

  8. Melissa says:

    Congratulations on a terrific article. I really appreciate your curiosity on this topic, and the Chron's publishing your findings. Nicely done!

  9. Mike says:

    What a wonderful, and much-needed piece in today's Chronicle. I spent some time in the trenches with Bill Niman helping build a distribution system for farmers and ranchers for whom the "local" movement was little use, since they lived long distances from metro markets. The single biggest frustration we faced was false claims by those seeking to capitalize on people's desire to support sustainable husbandry and family farming. I haven't seen the situation summarized better than your Chronicle piece today. I left Niman Ranch this year to work with a small non-profit specifically to help people understand what to look for in sustainable meat; working with a number of other non-profits we developed the Ask for Change! campaign to encourage people to ask pointed questions when dining or shopping; it even comes with a wallet-sized crib sheet. Anyone who wants one can find out more at http://www.askforchange.org. Your web site is great; let me know if there's anything we can do to work together; I've got LOTS of war stories!

  10. Jack says:

    Great article!!! ("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."

    Ditto.

  11. Eggo says:

    I think the restaurant's intentions are honorable--they were hoodwinked by the man. I'll still eat there--and I'll order the pork again when I am certain of its provenance. And I'm going back for the organic vodka they were out of last time I was there.

  12. Mike says:

    Michele is right about Meyer. They finish their cattle in a large feedlot in Nebraska. And they don't mention that on their web site. Regarding Certified Humane, which Meyer has been, there are no problems with having industrial size feedlots under that program. They regulate the conditions in the feedlot, but don't have any problem with feedlots.

    http://certifiedhumane.com/pdfs/2004-Std04.Cattle.3A.pdf pages 15 and 16.

  13. max says:

    Nice job. Refreshing to see bloggers who aren't morons improving the food section.

  14. David says:

    Thanks for you very informative article in the Chronicle. I am a scientist by training and read labels very carefully. I've concluded the word "Natural" can be put on just about anything and is therefore meaningless when trying to buy unadulterated food. It's kind of scary that the chefs didn't know that and didn't do their homework a little better. However, it sounds as if they were purposefully deceived by the seller. Caveat Emptor

  15. DairyQueen says:

    Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for all the kind words. While it's very dispiriting at times how hard it is to chew the right thing, I think maybe focusing on "better" rather than "best" is enough for most of those 200 or so food decisions we supposedly make daily.

    And asking questions. Want to know how the animals are raised, what they eat, and how they're slaughtered? Call up the rancher! If they don't want to tell you, well, you can stop right there. As for misleading advertising and websites, we as consumers, journalists, and bloggers, can all play a part in exposing and publicizing the reality. With transparency comes responsibility — I hope.

  16. Dick R says:

    Kudos to anyone trying to Change the World one bite at a time. While I am one of the dreamers, I am also a realist.

    We should measure how far we have come, not judge by where we should be. Progress/ not perfection.

    I totally agree that misrepresentation is an evil thing.

    While I truly admire Niman for their dedication and vision, isn't it true that they outsource a large portion of their products? How can one consider that sustainable or most importantly local?

  17. Nikki Rose says:

    Great article! Hope to see much, much more and it's high time major news editors decided to give the people the news they want...and need, without being paranoid about the wrath of Monsanto, et al.

    Regarding Globe: Well...as much as I feel bad for the very busy chef being misinformed about White Marble Farms by the Sysco rep...if Globe claims to serve sustainably raised this and that, they had better do their homework before they serve it to us.

    As for companies like Sysco that are squeezing into this market by misinforming their restaurant accounts, that should be no surprise. That is simply industrial food marketing 101. Face it, this has been going on for ages...was Gerber baby food really healthier than a carrot mom could have mashed with a fork...without adding loads of sodium and sugar...and some other "acceptable levels" of warehouse delights like lead on occasion?

    It just makes it harder for consumers to trust anyone in the food chain game. It makes it harder for real sustainable organic farmers to sell their products. That's why consumers really need to make time to do their own homework...do we have a choice? And keep these "all natural" guys from feeding us more hogwash.

    Best regards,
    Nikki Rose

  18. Paul says:

    Regarding Meyer and whether it is feedlot factory farmed meat or not, from their website linked to above:

    "our cattle not only need to perform at the ranch but in the feedlot and on the rail to obtain the best price possible each year."

  19. dantsea says:

    And here we are, eighteen months away from the article you wrote and an entry (see URL, above) I posted on a semi-abandoned blog about that piece and I'm still getting astroturfy comments defending Sysco/White Marble. I routinely delete them, but I've left the most current one as representative of what I get in the way of shills trying their best to muddle the issue.