CARGILL'S FAUX FAMILY FARM PORK

Well, I guess it was inevitable. First, Big Food muscled in on the organic market. Now we find out that they’re working on co-opting the “local” label, too.

Bonnie Azab Powell, co-founder of the brilliantly named, delightfully written food blog, Ethicurean.com (motto: “Chew the right thing!”), recently dined at a San Francisco restaurant that prides itself on serving local, sustainable food. Her husband ordered the pork chop, which came from a place called White Marble Farms.

Out of curiosity, Powell did a little sleuthing. She described the result in the San Francisco Chronicle:

What I discovered surprised me. White Marble Farms is a brand of Sysco, North America's largest food services distributor. The pork comes from Cargill Meat Solutions, America's second-largest meat processor.

It is bred to ensure tender meat marbled with just enough flavor-boosting fat. But these pigs never see a pasture. They're raised indoors in confinement barns, just the way most commercial pork is produced, except in smaller numbers. Aside from genetics, they're conventional pigs wearing a lip gloss of sustainability.

The chef had been snookered by a Sysco sales rep that told him the pork was “all natural” and came from hogs raised and slaughtered humanely by family farmers in Iowa. But Cargill, which provides the piglets, would not identify the Iowa farmers who raise them, and admitted that the hogs are confined indoors and fed pig by-products, despite Sysco’s claim that their hogs are fed an “all vegetable diet.”

This incident points up just how complicated it is even for food industry professionals to distinguish the truly sustainable sources from faux family farms brought to you by agribusiness.

Chef Ric Orlando has been promoting “clean food”--i.e. sustainable, free range, local or organic--for years on his PBS show Ric Orlando’s TV Kitchen and at his restaurant New World Home Cooking in upstate New York. Orlando offers his take on the “Sustainable-Organic-Local Food Issue” in his excellent new blog We Want Clean Food!!!:

… Folks, let me tell you that as a chef the simple notion of buying clean food is frighteningly complex! The complexity has increased tenfold over the last five years…

…We chefs are approached by waves of salespeople---some innocent though ignorant and some bordering on diabolical---with hundreds of "Money Saving" or "Value Added" items. When the name of the game is survival, many restaurant operators are blinded by the initial price of the food they purchase.

That appears to be the case for the San Francisco chef who bought the White Marble Farms pork: “…the rep said if I put 'White Marble Farms' on the menu, he'd give me an even better price," the chef told Powell.

And the fact is that if Powell hadn’t taken the initiative to dig up the dirt and connect the dots between White Marble Farms, Sysco, and Cargill, unsuspecting diners would still be ordering a White Marble Farms pork chop thinking that they’re supporting the small family farmer, not Big Food.

Powell’s not the only food blogger who picked up on Sysco’s scam. On the website for The Linkery, a San Diego restaurant whose goal is to serve healthy, sustainable, affordable food, a blogger named Jay elaborates on his own White Marble Farms pork chop experience in a post entitled “Would you like to visit White Marble Farms?”

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.”

Beware the Trojan Pork. We can’t afford to let the meaning of “local” get perverted by Big Food.