Slow-washing

By Angela Woodall

Berkeley Bowl is more down to earth than Whole Foods although at both locations shoppers line up to pay $20 for a Rosie broiler and more for Niman beef, depending on the cut. There are cheaper (relatively speaking), “conventional” options. But customers are willing to pay the extra in exchange for feeling like they are consuming meat provided by non-industrial ranchers who care about the earth and the animals, like at Gleason Ranch. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for happy beasts and birds — and ones they trust won’t be recalled the next week. But the open pasture, grass fed, organic story that they’re paying for may not be all that it’s supposed to be, at least according to advocates. Actually, all you have to do is poke around a little at the farms or read up on the producer to see the new version of greenwashing — what I call slow-washing.

For example, Niman ranch advertises “Compassionate family farmers raising animals with respect for the land.” According to the website:

At Niman Ranch we believe that in order to produce the finest tasting all-natural meat in the world you must begin with the strictest protocols. That means working with small U.S. family farmers who are committed to raising the highest quality breeds and are dedicated to caring for their livestock traditionally.

I thought the price tag paid for meat raised on the Niman ranch, founded in the 1970s by Bill Niman and Orville Schell, former dean of UC Berkeley’s journalism school. The truth is Bill Niman won’t eat the meat that still bears his name but little resemblance to the idealistic story that lingers. He sold the name to Natural Food Holdings LLC, which was Niman’s chief investor (here is what seems like a pretty complete piece about it). Natural Foods is a holding company and is part of Hilco Equity Partners, a gigantuan private equity firm. Nothing about their team, advisers or portfolio indicates anything local or sustainable. Maybe that doesn’t matter.

However, Niman is not a Bay Area company headquartered in Alameda, as the company advertises on its website. Not really: Natural Food Holdings is based in Sioux City, Iowa. In 2011, LNK Partners in New York invested $68 million in Natural Food Holdings, according to reports. The cattle are raised by contract ranchers and finished on grain in feedlots. And the Niman use of “all natural” means next to nothing. Here is the USDA’s definition:

All fresh meat qualifies as “natural.” Products labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term “natural.”

Free-range doesn’t much much either, as customers of Judy’s Family Farm eggs found out when the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a class-action lawsuit against the Judy’s Family Farm for false advertising. Judy’s denies any such thing. But this photo tells a different tale. The $4 price for 18 eggs at Berkeley Bowl was too good to be true but I didn’t expect Judy’s to be owned by Petaluma Egg Farm. The Cornucopia Institute offers several scorecards and a chart of major corporate owners of organic food products. This site gives a rundown of all the terminology or you can read the FDA’s Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book).

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