I cannot get enough of White Marble Farms

UPDATE: DairyQueen at the Ethicurean has written an SF Chronicle article about White Marble Farms pork and has actual, like, facts about it.  She just posted at Ethicurean about “Short Legger”‘s comment here, and DairyQueen sheds quite a bit of light on the subject.  Read her post here.

“Short Legger” comments on the enduring issue of White Marble Farms:

Alright, I’ll bite…but not hard. I work for the above mentioned company. Process-Verified means that there is a process verified by the USDA and in this case Sysco that must be followed to the tee or the claim cannot be made. If the claim is made that the pork comes from small midwest, sustainable farmers, than that must be so. Process Verifications have been yanked because not all the T’s have been crossed and not all the I’s dotted, it is not just lip service. Just so you know sustainable means that all waste, feed, etc. must stay on and be used by the farm. Niman Ranch is NOT process-verified and have been and currently are in financial difficulties which would make me leary in trusting anything they say. These aren’t, you know, lies. Also, any pork producer making a claim about “veg fed” and being free range is lying. Pigs are carnivorous. If there is a stream flowing through a piece of land and a dead fish washes up, the pig will eat it. Rats, skunks, possoms, cats, etc…pigs will eat them. If you have any other questions I would be happy to respond. By the way, are Townhouse crackers made in townhouse? Do they make salad dressing at Hidden Valley Ranch? Can I get syrup made in a Log Cabin? Just marketing. Everyone does it.

My response:

Short Legger,

Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and your sense of humor. I think this can become a positive dialog!

My biggest question is, with White Marble Farms, what exactly is the representation that is process-verified? I don’t have all of Sysco/Cargill’s marketing material, but from what I see, sustainability and small Midwestern farms aren’t mentioned as part of the “approved criteria.” (In fact, they’re not mentioned at all in the one-sheet I’m looking at now. [PDF link]) [UPDATE: This one-sheet [PDF link] does mention the farms are Midwestern, but does not say they’re independent or small.]

The “approved criteria” are “Animal ID and source verification”, “Compliance with animal genetics”, and “Participation in animal welfare audits.” I even note that “animal welfare” does not necessarily mean that the animals are treated humanely (a inhumanely treated animal may in fact be in very good health, as judged by objective measurements).

Another question I have: Why doesn’t Sysco/Cargill make the farms themselves known, or the information available to consumers. (Niman Ranch, for any problems they may or may not have, does, I believe, all farm-specific tracking of their pork cuts to the consumer.)

As for free-range pigs eating dead fish or cats, I can just say from my personal experience visiting a couple farms raising pastured pigs, that seemed to my eyes to be unlikely. Though I would be interested in hearing from any pasture pig farmers out there — does that happen? If so, what are the ramifications? Should we be worried about it? Now I’m curious.

In my opinion, the attitude that makes me not trust SYSCO is “it’s just marketing, everyone does it.” Regardless of who does it, if it’s misleading people into buying something they’re not actually getting — it’s ethcially dubious. And probably ineffective marketing. If you sell something of value, why even risk letting people misunderstand what you do, let alone encourage it?

The difference between White Marble Farms and Hidden Valley Ranch is one of context. On the supermarket shelves, the consumer knows that all of the mass-made bottled dressings come from factories. Up until recently, on a restaurant menu, a farm name on a menu meant that the item came from a specific farm, often an independent one. Sysco is exploiting that convention to communicate, deceptively, that White Marble Farms comes from a specific farm rather than from Cargill.

Does Niman Ranch do the same thing? In my opinion, yes — but Niman’s independence from factory farming and its willingness to provide transparency all the way back to the individual farm make it fundamentally different than Sysco/Cargill. But I suppose reasonable people could differ on that judgement.

Lastly, I’m going to be in the Midwest this summer. Can you help me arrange a visit to a White Marble Farms pig farm? I know I might not be on SYSCO’s “friends list”, but I think if you read the blog through you’ll see that I’ve endeavored to be thoughtful about the operations we’ve visited and fair to the producers we’ve met, whether or not we’re fully behind them at first.

In all sincerity, thank you Short Legger for contributing. Yours is really the first post from a Sysco employee that engages some of these questions thoughtfully. I hope that the dialogue can continue in that spirit.