The Food Crusades


Pointing fingers at farmers and ranchers.

Ranchers on Connealy Angus

Last night I watched a TedX talk that successfully induced fear into its audience about how we are being betrayed, deceived, and cheated into buying food that is raised inhumanely, unethically, and ultimately, is dangerous for our bodies.

The speaker dubbed the collective group behind this deception the “fiberatti — a secret society of people trained in deceptive food marketing.”

He first attacked the dairy industry, calling attention to the differences between the rolling grassy hills portrayed in milk marketing campaigns and the scenes of a real dairy. He then moved on to speak of the fiberatti’s influences on pork, poultry, crop farming, and the beef industry.

In other words, America’s entire agricultural ecosystem, according to the speaker, is being represented by a shady fiberatti, and we as Americans have been victimized.

Vertical Integration

What the TedX speaker was most likely referring to are the results of what’s called vertical integration: when one company controls all of a product’s supply chain.

Vertical integration is widespread in America’s food industries; Tyson owns much of the chicken we eat from the hatched egg to the refrigerated truck that delivers it to your local supermarket. Smithfield owns everything from the piglets to the pork butt purchased for your Thanksgiving table. The dairy industry is made up of co-ops that are controlled by larger food companies such as Dean Foods, which owns brands like Land o’ Lakes, Dairy Pure, and Meadow Gold.

Source: Market Realist

The retail arms of these large companies are able to bend both their animal husbandry and their marketing efforts to benefit their bottom lines. If they can control what does or does not go into their animals, it behooves them to maximize that control by manipulating consumer messaging to match their production style. “Antibiotic-Free,” “Hormone-Free,” and “Pasture-Raised” are three such examples of claims that are misleading, but lucrative.

Was a so-called ‘fiberatti’ behind these claims? I don’t know. Someone who is really good at marketing and consumer psychology definitely was.

But the thing is that when these labels are put on pork or poultry, the company behind it directly represents every single phase of the animal’s life. They raised it, weaned it, harvested it, and sold it. They are wholly accountable, for good or for bad.

But is it accurate to lump all of American agriculture under this umbrella?

Here’s an example.

Pork and poultry are both proteins that can be produced under confinement. They do not need land on which to graze and grow in the same way that cattle do, which is largely why they are vertically integrated industries. One corporation has the capital and ability to own every single aspect.

Cattle require pasture on which to graze, unlike chicken or hogs. A pasture on Connealy Angus Ranch in Nebraska.

Beef, though often lumped together with pork and poultry, is a very different industry. As I described in a recent article, beef can change ownership up to 5 times from pasture to plate; no one large company owns all aspects of the supply chain. This is called horizontal integration.

Why the price of your steak has nothing to do with the price of a cow

While it is true that just four companies own the majority of beef slaughter and processing in the U.S., 97% of cow/calf operations — farms and ranches— are small, family producers.

A Labor of Love

Tens of thousands of families are responsible for the large majority of each cow’s life. They work long, strenuous hours, and are often rewarded with cattle prices that make it challenging to keep on keepin’ on. Farmers and ranchers treat their herds like their livelihood depends on them, because it does. These families often live in remote areas, sacrificing the conveniences of an urban lifestyle, sending their children to schools that don’t afford as many opportunities, and taking on a large amount of risk for very little return.

These farmers and ranchers — the accused fiberatti — are not trying to deceive us. Rather, they are trying to understand what we want as American consumers, and work to reconcile if those desires align with what’s best for their animals and for the environment.

Sometimes what we want isn’t what’s best.

As a ranch kid who has been afforded the opportunity to be on both sides of the fence, now living in an urban area on the East Coast, I can attest to the fact that many of our consumer desires do not always result in a healthier, more ethically-raised and environmentally-friendly product.

Here are a few examples of marketing claims pushed by the retail companies who have nothing to do with the actual raising of the animals.

  1. Grass-finished beef is better for the environment. Studies have demonstrated that grass-finished cattle leave a 70% larger carbon footprint than those finished on grain, which by the way, is like cake to a cow and their ruminant stomachs are designed to digest.
  2. Antibiotic use is rampant in the beef industry, and administered drugs are then are transferred to you and your children via steaks and burgers. Animals generally only receive antibiotics if they are very sick, and then must undergo a withdrawal period from the drug. No meat sold in the U.S. ever contains antibiotics. In my parents’ own herd, less than 1% of cattle ever get sick enough to need antibiotics, and at that point, it would be cruel and irresponsible to withhold treatment and watch them suffer.
  3. Growth hormones are given to cattle in unsafe and unnatural amounts. One 3 oz steak from an animal that has been implanted contains 1.9 nanograms of estrogen. Compare that to 225 nanograms in 3 oz of potatoes, and 35,000 nanograms in a typical birth control pill.

I am certainly not trying to say that the beef industry is infallible; we all need to take a look in the mirror sometimes and make sure that our practices are responsible, sustainable, and safe. All of us, including corporate marketing teams.

Throw a stone…

…and you’ll find ten people who will identify as food crusaders, fighting to get the ‘truth’ out about modern American agriculture.

I couldn’t agree more with the idea that something is amiss with our food system in the U.S. There are weird things happening with disease, allergies, and obesity that cannot be easily explained. But to point fingers at small family farmers who do a heck of a lot better job raising protein than I ever could is unjust.

We as consumers must do our own due diligence. While most of us can’t speak from first hand experience, we can all check our sources, seek out both sides of the story, and think for ourselves.

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