White Marble Farms discussion

Chip from Sysco writes:

As a guy not ahamed to say he works for sysco – a sales rep even – I, and my co-workers I might add, have never sold this product as being pork from a place called White Marble Farms – it is as you said a brand like Certified Angus Beef or Heinz ketchup – no one thinks the ketchup comes from the house of some guy named Heinz but some people knowing the quality of heinz ketchup rather than just some store brand will sell it as Heinz Ketchup. The same hods true for White Marble farms – it is a premium product as those who have tried it have said – so rather than selling a pork loin – you sell a White Marble Farms pork loin.

First of all, I’d like to thank you Chip for commenting and doing so in your own voice. I believe that genuine discussion by real people is the way that we’ll all really come to understand more about how the current system works and what we can do to make it better for everyone.

I completely believe that Sysco sales reps don’t misrepresent the nature of White Marble Farms. The product’s name and marketing is subtly misleading enough — given the current context of high end restaurant food — that restaurants and diners will jump to the erroneous conclusion without being overtly lied to.

I do think it’s important to note that Sysco discounts the price of the pork to restaurants that print the brand name on the menu. Up until now, when the brand or farm name of meat or produce has been printed on the menu at a high-end restaurant, the name is typically the name of a specific farm (i.e., Chino Farms) or a group of independent farms working in similar methods (Niman Ranch). Diners (and, as mentioned in Bonnie Azab Powell’s article, chefs) simply aren’t ready to intuit that that the brand name in front of the meat means that it is a select product from one of the world’s largest factory meat integrators (Cargill).

A big part of what I’m trying to accomplish (and I think what Ms. Powell is trying to accomplish) is to get the word out that Sysco/Cargill have co-opted the cultural meaning of meat descriptions on menus, so people can’t rely on just seeing the name of a farm to mean that the meat came from a given farm.

I think it’s been a slippery slope. When reading “Niman Ranch pork chop”, I believe most people think it came from a specific farm called Niman Ranch. When they find out it doesn’t, there’s a bit of a saving grace because it comes from a kind of co-op that came out of a specific farm called Niman Ranch, and all the farms are independent operations in the spirit of the farm that it’s named after. OK.

When reading “White Marble Farms pork chop”, most people think the pork chop comes from a farm called White Marble Farms. Or, if they’re familiar with Niman, perhaps a co-operative of small farms. They’re dismayed to learn that it’s a pastoral-sounding brand name for industrial meat from Cargill. Of course, since the restaurant owners and chefs are similarly unaware, the diner probably won’t find out until they Google it.

There are other forms of “menu-ese” that are I think problematic, like American Kobe Beef, so it’s not like Sysco/Cargill are unique in using misdirection to build their sales. But White Marble Farms is, I think, particularly effective in using the context of fine-dining menus to mislead diners as to the provenance of their food. And, because of that, is particularly insidious.

Ultimately, if people really want to understand what they’re eating, they’re going to have to go visit the farms and processors, or buy food from people and businesses — whether big Whole Foods-style companies or small enterprises like ours — who do visit the farms and communicate first-hand information about how the food is produced, from the land to the plate. If Sysco wanted to be a part of that, they could easily do it. But they don’t, even though the brand name White Marble Farms hints, misleadingly, that they are.