Buyer beware this butcher’s bullshit

It's a sad and telling sign of the SOLE food movement's popularity, when people use the movement's principles to market their beef and hide the bullshit behind the counter.  As Matthew Richter writes in "Mystery Meat" for Seattle's The Stranger, J'Amy Owens and William Von Schneidau, the people behind Puget Sound's new "Bill the Butcher Organic Meats," are all too happy to make misleading claims to their customers about the organic, local sourcing of their meats.  Their shops label products as organic, even when they are not.

How local and organic are the products?  They admit that they buy beef from Colorado and Nevada, instead of from one of Washington's 18 organic beef ranches.  They refuse to name the ranches where they source their beef.  Their chickens, labeled "organic" by the butcher shop, are not organic according to the farm that raises them.  The chicken farmer adds that he has told Bill the Butcher not to label his chickens as organic.

Owens goes so far as to say, "Well, 'buyer beware,' honestly. In any consumer proposition, you have to trust the person you're buying from."  Owens and Von Schneidau give little indication that they are the people to trust.

Richter's article shines much needed transparency on a company that has mislabeled its products as organic and local.  But if Owens' and Von Schneidau's responses in the article are any indication, we won't see a confession from Bill the Butcher any time soon.  (The Stranger)

11 Responsesto “Buyer beware this butcher’s bullshit”

  1. Uggh. This problem is actually rampant. Out where I live a guy is selling sausage at the farmers market, saying the pork is 'pasture-raised' & 'local'. The truth is the pigs are raised in poopy dirt lots and come from over 100 miles away.  A restaurant served our pork for one special event and then left the sign up about our farm on the wall months later, as if they were still buying pork from us. The same restaurant did a special farm dinner where they were supposed to use our pork & grassfed beef from a neighbor. They never purchased it but still said our names on the menu. Unless you are buying straight from the farm, you can't be sure that the butcher shop, sausage-maker, or restaurant is telling the consumer the truth. I would wager that most often they either don't know what they are talking about or purposely stretching the truth.

  2. Heath says:

    When people pay more for food for reasons other than taste, or features the consumer can directly verify, it creates the incentive for fraud.

    I've written about this here: http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/2010/03/my-thoughts-on-slow-foods-remarks-on.html

    Sadly, once there's enough of an incentive, people will attempt to give people what they want - even if it means committing fraud.

    Another example: there are people who go to a farmers' market and spend a lot of money on eggs. They don't care if the eggs taste good or not - they'll spend more money on eggs if they buy them at the farmers' market. Unfortunately, this creates an incentive for people to buy eggs (from anywhere) and sell them at the farmers' market, pocketing the difference. The only thing stopping them is their conscience - and clearly, some people don't have a conscience. The farmers' market managers are supposed to prevent such fraud - but they don't have the resources to do it.

    If people buy things on the basis of taste, and not on the basis of unverifiable claims - e.g. "sustainable" or "local" people aren't going to feel burned.

    If people really want to buy things based on other criteria (e.g. how the food is produced, regardless of how it tastes), unfortunately, they need to verify that it really is produced the way they want it. That's ridiculously costly and/or time-consuming, of course - but that's the only way to do it.

  3. Erin says:

    I agree that incentive is there for unscrupulous people to take advantage of a customer's desire to "do the right thing". However, I think things are going to get on the right track:
    -The people who certify organic farms with the WSDA are diligent, hard working people. They test products for integrity, in the field, and at the market.
    -Last month, fines and suspensions were given for violations, see http://agr.wa.gov/ for details.
    -A farm must be certified every year, and a time-saving list of certified farms is available at the site above.
    -I work with over 30 certified organic farmers who are dedicated, honest, and happy to be accountable. It's worth it to them to maintain a high level of integrity.
    -If you buy products directly from a farmer, give them feedback. They really appreciate it.

  4. Margaret says:

    Anyone who wants to use the term "organic" in their title or advertising is subject to the requirements of the National Organic Standards act of 2002--it's federal! Therefore, anyone with complaints about fraud should go to their closest USDA office and start complaining; it's a little different from state to state about which USDA office will investigate (centralized vs. localized), but in most states there are people who care passionately about maintaining the integrity of the Organic label, and they will respond with an investigation.  Farmers market customers need to understand the difference between "certified" markets (has nothing to do with certified organic, by the way), and non-certified markets--and those that have both kinds of sections. In certified markets, or areas of markets, farmers can only sell what they themselves produce, and there are "certificates" from the county Ag. departments that show what the farm is actually producing.  In non-certif. markets--or the non-certified sections of markets--vendors can sell whatever the market's operators allow, including resale items.  In our Redding, CA area markets, we are patrolled very carefully by our own Board, as well as the county Ag. department--but in other locations that may not be as true. Don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't be afraid to complain, loudly! Legitimate farmers will have photos, certificates, invitations for you to come to the farm (but not to just drop in--we're too busy!), etc.

  5. Susan says:

    Thanks for publishing this. I was excited when I saw that we were getting an 'organic' butcher in Redmond. I guess I have to go back to buying my meat from Thundering Hooves. They have great products but not as handy as having a local store.

  6. M. Sharon Baker says:

    There is no meat mystery or mystery meat for that matter. Bill The Butcher never claimed they were "100 percent certified organic" and they've been working on transparency.  Check out http://www.billthebutcher.com and read The Open Letter and Meat Specifications before passing uneducated judgments.

  7. Londa Hohimer says:

    We have a cattle operations with years of cattle experience and are investigating the benefits of becoming certified organic in Texas.  BUT, have not been able to locate a reputable buyer.  If anyone knows of anything please contact Kenneth Campbell, area code 936-590-0508

    Thank you.

  8. Michael says:

    It just came to my attention that The Stranger’s Mathew Richter (Mystery Meat: How Organic Is Seattle's New "Organic" Butcher?) wasn’t finished with his research on the business practices of the Bill The Butcher chain of meat shops when I posted Scalability And The Artisan Butcher Shop the other evening. In attempting to discover the sources of Bill The Butchers’ “local, certified organic” beef, Richter contacted the “18 certified organic beef ranches in Washington state” and as posted on The Stranger blog late last week Richter indicated that “none of them sold to Bill the Butcher.”

    You might suggest that Bill the Butcher could reasonably be including certified organic beef from Idaho, Oregon, or even Montana within its definition of ‘local,’ but if this is the case, why are they so reluctant to inform the public…don’t their customers have the right to know exactly what 'local' means, and that they are indeed supporting 'local' farmers. Since this is not the case, it would appear that Bill the Butcher is employing the same tactics as Big Ag and Big Food all for the sake of increasing sales and demonstrating the value of their ‘business model.’ You might also suggest that I am just ‘piling on,’ but I don’t think you can heap enough scorn or derision on people or businesses that try to lead us down the same path that has so damaged the integrity of the food production systems in this country, all the while telling us they’re doing it ‘the right way.’

  9. Jackie says:

    A new butcher shop opened up in my town a few years back.  The tagline on their sign and logo says "From our farm to your table."  They specialize in pork (which they do raise on their farm), but sell all types of meat and also outsource pork to keep up with demand.  When I asked if they sourced their beef and chicken locally, the manager told me that they can't count on local producers to raise high-quality products and so purchase from the large meat-packers in order to ensure they get the highest quality meats for their customers.   The only difference from the supermarket, besides the prices of course, is they request Choice-Prime carcasses from industrial lockers and do the cutting on their own.   As a local producer I was offended; as a customer I felt betrayed.  I purchased nothing and have never returned.   Thankfully we have a small-scale, family-owned meat locker within a few miles that buys from local producers and supports the local foods movement.

  10. "From our farm to your table."

    Interesting tag line. Similar to what we use on our labels:

    "From our family farm to your family's table."

    In our case it is completely and utterly true. We breed, farrow and raise every pig we sell. We deliver pastured pork fresh weekly to local area stores, restaurants and individuals. It is challenging. Right now we have to six hour long drive each week to a slaughterhouse but that will change. We're in the process of building our own on-farm slaughterhouse and butcher shop on a nano-scale just for doing our own farm's livestock. This will give us more vertical integration and security for our farm as well as better quality for our customers and more humane conditions (no travel, no strange places) for our animals.

    It is sad to see people abuse terms for marketing. This ends up reflecting badly on others who are doing good. Nothing new in that though. Fortunately over time they lose out because the word spreads. Good tends to float to the top.

  11. Connie says:

    The "Open Letter" referred to above is the beginning of the PR spin. These guys are so corrupt they should think about getting into politics!Bill the Butcher sold me organic chicken, repeatedly, at inflated price. Lied about it. The new marketing discovery seems to be that if you call something organic, sustainable, local, or ethical you can charge more for it. Well, these words mean something and I have no respect for those who cynically cash in on a food movement that many take seriously. At the same time, on the National Level, organic labeling standards are under continual attack with industry wanting to dilute the meaning of these standards until they truly don't mean anything. At that point crooks like Bill wouldn't be lying anymore!