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Fast-Food Chains Are Demanding Ethical Products. How Will Farmers Keep Up?

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Where is the sustainable supply of higher-standard eggs, meat, and dairy going to come from?

Photo by Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Though Chipotle Mexican Grill started as a big-as-your-head burrito chain, today its media coverage usually focuses its "morals" rather than what's on the menu. A little less than a decade after Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle in Denver, he became entranced by the flavor of pasture-raised Niman Ranch pork. In 2000, Chipotle began a policy of serving antibiotic-free pork sourced from Niman Ranch, among others, with other meats to follow.

Meanwhile, many of the largest chains have been linked to egg, dairy, or meat suppliers whose animals were raised in less than pastoral conditions. But within the last few years, the McFoods of the world have started changing their tune. The great PR and constant growth of Chipotle has made more-traditional chains eager to cash in on public goodwill, as well. In 2012, Dunkin' Donuts announced that it would use cage-free eggs in its breakfast sandwiches and source pork from farmers who don't use gestation crates. In March of this year, McDonald's committed to serving "chicken raised without antibiotics that are important to human medicine" and "milk from cows that are not treated with rbST, an artificial growth hormone." Even Starbucks continues "expanding" its supply of cage-free eggs.

As it turns out, Chipotle's humane sourcing wasn't an anomaly so much as a move that was a step ahead of the market. But at just 1,831 stores total, Chipotle is able to do so on a relatively small scale. When giants like McDonald's (at more than 14,000 stores) and Starbucks (with 12,233 locations in the U.S.) get into the game, the question becomes whether there's enough responsibly sourced animal products to go around.

Signage at Chipotle's Cultivate festival heralds "TK" pork. Photo:

Signage at Chipotle's Cultivate festival heralds "naturally raised" pork. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for Chipotle

How did "health food" go mainstream?

Not too long ago, people who identified as "vegetarian" in the United States were often met with cockeyed stares and questions like, "but you can eat chicken, right?" Animal welfare was a term applied to dogs and cats — not farm animals. But a lot has changed since then.

In 2002, organics went from hippie-shorthand to a type of farming with national USDA standards. In less than a decade, organic production rose 240 percent. Burgeoning health-food behemoth Whole Foods began acquiring local health-food chains, giving good-for-you groceries a more consumerist vibe. Then large food corporations started getting in the game. According to the Cornucopia Institute, of the 81 independent food organic processing companies that existed in 1995 — including brands like Odwalla, Cascadian Farms, and Kashi — only 18 hadn't been purchased by companies like Pepsi or Kellogg a decade later. Today, even conventional grocery stores now carry meat substitutes, non-dairy milks, and a selection of organics. In the midst of all these changes, consumers also started paying attention to how the animals that made their meat, milk, and eggs spent their lives. And the reality wasn't always rosy.

Of the 81 independent organic food companies that existed in 1995, only 18 remained independent by 2005.

After undercover videos and PR campaigns made "factory farming" a commonly used term, food providers honed in on a few changes that farms across the country could make for the better. One of these was increasing the size of battery cages — square wire frames stacked side by side and one on top of another — used mostly for poultry. Another was moving toward cage-free eggs, which took egg-laying hens out of the wire cages altogether. In pork, it was moving away from gestation crates, metal structures that hold sows still during the entirety of their four-month pregnancy (the aim is to keep them from fighting with other pregnant sows). Finally, companies started responding to concern over the practice of feeding animals large quantities of antibiotics — both to speed up growth and to keep diseases from spreading in such cramped conditions. Recent studies suggest that food animals are the recipients of 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States.

Josh Balk, senior director of food policy for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), says that his organization has worked with more than 60 food companies — fast food, food service, and even food distributors like Sysco — to "shift industries away from these practices." "Improving the welfare of animals is an issue that can be worked on perpetually because we can always do better — and these companies embrace that," Balk says. Yet even once there's a plan in place — Starbucks wants to go cage-free or McDonald's wants to move away from antibiotics — there's one important step left. Where is this supply of higher standard eggs, meat, and dairy going to come from? Though most large companies give themselves a grace period (either in years or by offering an increasing percentage of higher-standard products), farmers can't just change their operations overnight.

Balk thinks that at least for larger companies, changes happen slowly enough that farmers have time to make necessary alterations. "When you are a supplier of these major companies, you want to keep them as customers," he says. "If you're a meat, egg, or dairy supplier the last thing you want to do is not follow through and go out of business." This can get complicated when you're asking farmers not to tweak an existing model but to rebuild from the ground-up.

Breakfast sandwiches at Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks, which have both pledged to use cage-free eggs. Photos: Facebook; official

Is there enough to go around?

In January 2015, Chipotle announced that roughly one-third of its stores would temporarily strike carnitas (braised pork shoulder) from the menu. The reason? When a major pork supplier failed to meet one of its requirements, the chain simply let carnitas go rather than switching to conventionally raised pork. Although Chipotle has a history of using a mixture of conventional and "responsibly raised" (as they call it) meats like chicken and beef, it's possible that Chipotle drew the line at pork because the quest for high-quality carnitas is how Ells crafted the Chipotle image. But the very public supply shortage drew attention to the issue of whether or not there's enough meat, dairy, and eggs at these high standards to go around.

"It's our understanding that the supply of cage-free eggs is not at the level needed to sustain current demand."

"Pork suppliers that meet our protocol account for less than five percent of all the pigs raised in this country," says Chris Arnold, Chipotle's director of communications. He also acknowledges that the chain's quick growth and a "60-year low" in beef has left Chipotle to source its grassfed cattle from Australian farms instead. Even Dunkin' Donuts, which is moving to cage-free eggs, is carefully managing the low supply. Christine Riley Miller, senior director of corporate social responsibility for the chain, says, "it's our understanding that the supply of cage-free eggs is not at the level needed to meet the current demand." She adds that as more companies try to source cage-free eggs, availability may become even lower. Dunkin' Donuts is "taking a staged approach" to mitigate some of these problems. According to an annual report, Dunkin' Donuts is only sourcing five percent of its eggs from cage-free facilities as of 2013, but plan to slowly increase that percentage over time. So far, these eggs are coming from suppliers who "currently offer cage-free solutions," Miller says. It's unclear if Dunkin' will work with conventional egg farmers to move toward cage-free as their demand increases.

But Joel Salatin, owner of hyper-sustainable Polyface Farms, doesn't believe that "peak sustainability" — a point at which there's no way we can possibly produce enough to go around — has to happen. "Can our kind of beef, for example, supply all the needs of every McDonald's?" he says. "There's no question that it can."

Joel Salatin, at Polyface Farms. Photo by Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Joel Salatin, at Polyface Farms. Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for the Washington Post via Getty Images

Polyface Farms is probably the most recognizable sustainable farm in the United States due to its prominence in Michael Pollan's bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma. Today, it's also one of Chipotle's pork suppliers. Salatin's parents purchased the farm in 1961 and adopted unconventional methods like moving cattle to "mob graze" on small areas of pasture. The way each animal type is raised works in tandem with the others to create a form of farming that operates more like an ecosystem than stationary agriculture. These methods have allowed the Salatins to raise cattle, broilers, egg layers, and turkeys all on the same acreage (and their pigs elsewhere). In a CAFO, a chicken may get less than one square foot of living space, while Salatin estimates that Polyface can raise 500 chickens per acre (43,560 square feet), accounting for the size of a portable henhouse "egg mobile" and the daily movement of the birds throughout the pasture. The method certainly makes a difference in numbers. That said, this year the Salatins will sell 270 cows, 100,000 dozen eggs, 30,000 broilers, and 2,000 turkeys in addition to cattle — all from roughly the same plot of land.

"Can our kind of beef supply all the needs of every McDonald's? There's no question that it can."

Salatin's farm has become alarmingly successful, directly marketing and selling its products to "2,000 families, 25 restaurants, and 10 retail outlets" according to its website. But most sustainable farms don't have nearly that scale. Tendergrass Farms is not one farm but a cooperative of about 50 farmers who sell under the Tendergrass brand. Owner David Maren says that these individual family farms range in size — but together, these farms supply much larger orders and market themselves better than they could individually. In fact, many small farmers are moving toward this cooperative branding. Familiar companies like Organic Valley are actually farmer-cooperative. So are behind-the-scenes suppliers like United Egg Producers, who together account for "95 percent of all the nation's egg-laying hens." It's easier for the Chipotles and McDonaldses of the world to work closely with a few cooperative suppliers than maintain communications and orders among thousands of them. Salatin believes that while "it's not as easy as snapping your fingers," sustainable, high-animal welfare meats "could absolutely supplant every kind of feedlot beef in the country."

But that goal comes with one major caveat — chains today tend to use only one part of the animal, leaving farmers in the lurch to scale up while selling the rest of the pig, chicken, or cow elsewhere. "We can't buy the pork shoulder and pay the premium that we do and then have the farmer sell the rest at commodity prices and make money," says Chipotle's Arnold. As Salatin puts it, "there's a lot more on the pig [than pork shoulders], and as a small farmer, we need to use the entire critter." According to Salatin, the narrow parts of the animal each fast-food chain uses on their menu "exacerbates the transition" to using more sustainable meats. Perhaps the only answer is for fast-food companies to scale up together — one can buy all the dark chicken meat while another buys the breasts — so farmers can produce enough without throwing the "leftovers" away at commodity prices.

Agricultural economist Jayson Lusk sees this as a variation on a common problem. "Anybody in business faces the challenge of offering a high-quality product at a price consumers are willing to pay," he says. If consumers were willing to pay even higher premiums for high-welfare foods, it may not matter so much that farmers can only sell one piece of their hogs, chickens, or cows. But Lusk believes that money, not physical restrictions on supply, is the reason for some of these shortages. Past studies involving Lusk have shown that when consumers are asked directly about animal welfare, they say it's very important to them. However, "when you place it on a continuum of things like food safety, price, nutrition... [animal welfare] falls below." Consumers may think animal welfare reform is worth doing, without being willing to pay the price to make it happen.

Greg Kahn/GRAIN for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Polyface Farms's Joel Salatin. Photo: Greg Kahn/GRAIN for the Washington Post via Getty Images

Are the changes actually meaningful?

When it comes to supply, there's a big difference in Chipotle and McDonald's demands. While Dunkin Donuts' request for cage-free eggs may overlap with similar policies enacted by chains like Starbucks, Arnold doesn't believe Chipotle has similar rivals. Even the antibiotic-free standards McDonald's is publicizing aren't the same as Chipotle's, Arnold says. "They're still allowing for a use of ionophors, which are not for humans, but still used by farmers for antibiotics," he explains, adding, "our chicken is truly antibiotic-free."

"Unfortunately, I'm a businessman and I don't always get to do what I like."

For better or worse, while eliminating gestation crates and moving to cage-free eggs is certainly progress, it's still progress within the "factory farming" system. It's much cheaper — and easier — for farmers to update their indoor housing for farm animals than to move them all out to pasture. Maren, of Tendergrass Farms, believes that there needs to be a discussion about standards that are economically viable for farmers. Farmers can't present a supply of beautiful, humanely raised, sunbathed meats if there aren't enough companies willing to pay for it.

"I would love to be able to sell pork and chicken that was raised in the woods where they only ate acorns and clover and never ate any grains," Maren says. "Unfortunately, I'm a businessman and I don't always get to do what I like." Even the idealistic new breed of back-to-pasture farmers have bills to pay.