After I wrote this post, I arrived in San Luis Obispo and went to dinner with my Mom at EP Koberl at Blue. It’s a quite good restaurant, our server was super helpful and our meals were delicious. Plus they were open past 9, which is hard to find there on a Wednesday — they don’t call it SLO Town for nothing.
Choosing my meal, my eyes alighted on the pork chop, which was from “White Marble Farms.” I didn’t recognize the name of the farm, but I’ve learned a little about how pork is raised, so I asked the server what she could tell me about White Marble Farms. She wasn’t familiar with them, but went to ask somebody, and came back and said that it was a farm in the Western US, and that the chef really liked the quality of their pork.
Well, thanks to the wonders of the internets, I was later able to find that White Marble Farms is a product line from Sysco [link is a PDF file]. In other words, there is no White Marble Farms, it’s just a brand name given by Sysco to meat that they buy that has certain quality characteristics. “SYSCO Quality Assurance specialists” verify these characteristics, including “Compliance with animal genetics”, “Animal ID and source verification”, and “Participation in animal welfare audits”. We don’t work with Sysco so I was unfamiliar with the brand.
Here’s the thing: the pork chop was fantastic. Great body and depth of flavor, super tender and just the right amount of flaky. I have no doubt that somewhere, some farmer on some piece of land is taking great pride in the pigs he raises.
But Sysco isn’t interested in letting you know who it is.
Sysco’s existence depends on detaching you, the eater, from the producer of your foods. Once you start asking questions about where your food comes from and how its treated and processed, the bulk of their business will be of little interest to you.
When Sysco finds that “there is a growing demand for quality pork” they enhance their supply chain to add such products, and then brand them with a new Sysco label, in this case, “White Marble Farms.”
People are craving an understanding of what they’re eating, and Sysco is substituting a brand name that seems to convey it, but doesn’t. What breed was that pork? Who raised it, and where, and with what external effects?
Now, I should note that Niman Ranch pork also sounds like it comes from a specific farm but it doesn’t. Niman Ranch contracts with small farmers who agree to follow certain guidelines of quality, sustainability, and humaneness. Niman Ranch is making a difference and pushing things in a good direction. However, I think it’s an opportunity for improvement in their operation that, if we buy Niman Ranch pork, they can’t quite tell us what breed it is or what it was finished on.
But I think they’re working on it: with loin, they can now tell you what farm it came from. I believe that’s new since we opened. It would be nice if we could, through Niman, buy specific breeds from specific farms, but I don’t think that’s in place yet.
Overall, though, I think there’s a fundamental difference in the essence of Niman Ranch and Sysco: Niman Ranch benefits when people ask questions about their food, so over time I expect they’ll make more and more information available about all their products. Sysco as a whole does not benefit when people ask about all their food, so Sysco will try to seem like they’re communicating details about their food, when they’re actually not. At most, I’ll wager, they’ll get down to details on specific “product lines” where their restaurant customers demand it.
I assume Sysco is just responding to the growth and success of Niman Ranch by applying their immense resources to produce, process, and distribute high-quality pork. It works, and I’ve no doubt it will be successful. Sysco may even successfully slow the process of people developing awareness of the production of their food, an awareness which will threaten Sysco’s continued existence (or at least force it to undergo drastic change).