Whole Foods Pork Supplier Encounters Growth, Sustainability Challenges

September 17, 2015 09:00 PM

When you're pushing a shopping cart through the chilled air of the Whole Foods Market meat department, past rows of neatly packaged poultry and a glass case of butchered pork chops, the supermarket wants you to imagine the idyllic pastures on a place like Sweet Stem Farm. 

Nestled on a handful of acres in scenic Lancaster County, Pa., the farm is run by a young couple who set out to create a grass-fed "farming oasis" for chickens, turkeys, lambs, cattle and heritage-breed pigs, according to a video on the website of Whole Foods, which the farm supplies. "I want to see confinement farms be a thing of the past really," Philip Horst-Landis, co- owner of Sweet Stem, says in the video.

But growing demand for sustainably-raised pork challenged those ideals. The couple decided to ditch cattle and poultry in order to focus on pigs, constructing four greenhouse-style barns that allowed the operation to grow from 80 pigs a year to roughly 3,000. In the process, Sweet Stem stopped raising animals in pasture as shown in the Whole Foods video. The farm sought more help, too, hiring a "pig-care trainee" in June. Unbeknownst to Horst-Landis, however, the new farmhand also worked for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The activists at PETA advocate a vegan lifestyle and do their best to convert the meat-eating masses, often by filming grisly undercover videos at industrial-scale livestock farms. The footage from Sweet Stem is mild compared to the animal-rights group's usual undercover capers. Large pigs are shown crowded into pens with little room to roam and open wounds left untreated. A worker lifts pigs by their ears.

It's not exactly pigs being beaten with metal rods. Still, the conditions shown in the video appear to violate the spirit—and some specific requirements—of the Whole Foods animal- welfare program, for which Sweet Stem Farm gets a favorable ranking.

Horst-Landis insists the images of overcrowded pig pens have been manipulated by PETA undercover and that other allegations, such as the untreated wounds, are mostly false. "It's just deceit and distortion," he says. Whole Foods also stands by its farmer. Officials from the supermarket chain visited Sweet Stem on Wednesday, taking video and photos of pigs walking around in a covered building with hay on the floor. Whole Foods says it found no problems at the farm.

The conflicting videos of Sweet Stem Farm highlight the challenges of meeting the soaring demand for meat and dairy products raised in a humane and sustainable manner, even as the definition for those terms remains open to interpretation—and clever marketing. "We're way past the point of confusion," says Bob Goldin, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago- based market research firm. "There's a lot of skepticism about those labels. They are just overused."

Whole Foods puts a lot of information on the shelves, an acknowledgment that its customers care about where their food comes from. "They want to know more than anyone about what they're purchasing and how it's raised," says Becky Faudree, global meat buyer at the grocery chain. "Labeling and signage is kind of how we can tell that story." The company also says the Sweet Stem pork is appropriately labeled in the nearly two dozen stores where it continues to be sold.

Demand is growing for food that is organic, natural, and humanely-raised, whether for cage-free eggs or pasture-raised beef. U.S. sales of organic products grew 11 percent last year alone, according to figures from the Organic Trade Association. McDonald's announced earlier this month that it will shift to cage-free eggs in the U.S. and Canada. Changing dietary trends are putting new pressure on farmers who want to keep up with consumer interest in feel-good meat. Tendergrass Farms, an online marketplace for grass-fed meat, plans to begin selling organic bacon "raised on family farms with a vegetarian diet and no ractopamine (a beta agonist growth promotant) or antibiotics."

"The more consumers who demand all of this, the more difficult it is going to be to deliver," says Janice Swanson, chair of animal behavior and welfare at Michigan State University. "That's one of the discussions about sustainable food: What is really sustainable, especially for feeding large numbers of people?"

The clash between idealism and demand played out recently at Chipotle Mexican Grill, which has become a fast-food phenomenon by marketing "food with integrity." But Chipotle has struggled to keep up with demand for sustainably raised pork, and an audit uncovered housing violations at one of Chipotle's pig suppliers. Rather than serve pork from conventional sources, the chain pulled the "carnitas" burrito filling off the menu.

Chipotle has since moved to add a British pork supplier and expects to have pork at all its locations by the end of the year. "The vast majority of pork raised in the United States—more than 95 percent based on our estimates—is not raised to our standards," Co-Chief Executive Steve Ells said on a conference call in July. 

The organic milk business went through its own growing pains, after complaints emerged that large-scale organic dairies were providing cows with minimal access to pasture. A rule introduced in 2010 requires that dairy cows actively graze on pasture during the grazing season.

The success of Whole Foods has been predicated on the idea of making consumers feel good about what they eat, whether it's organic kale or a pork chop from a pasture-raised pig. The grocer now markets its animal welfare scoring system, introduced in 2009, prominently at meat counters inside its stores. Suppliers receive a ranking, from one to five, based on the treatment of livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluates animal-welfare claims on meat packaging to make sure they are not inaccurate or misleading.

“We can get cheaper supply every day, all day, but in doing that we would have to sacrifice our standards.”

Under the Whole Foods system, all farmers and ranchers supplying beef, turkey, chicken, and pork must at least attain "Step 1" status, which the company describes as "a clear departure from conventional animal agricultural practices." At its most basic, Whole Foods says, this means "no cages, no crates, no crowding." Reaching "Step 5," by contrast, calls for a life spent in pasture-raised paradise on a single farm. 

Whole Foods has struggled to source enough ethical meat to satisfy its discerning customers. "It's doable, but it takes a lot," Faudree says. "We can get cheaper supply every day, all day, but in doing that we would have to sacrifice our standards."

It's particularly difficult and expensive to get hog growers to shift to more sustainable practices. Building larger facilities costs millions, Faudree says, so Whole Foods often agrees to buy all animals from the farmer or rancher to minimize the risk. Of the company's 2,822 pork, beef, chicken, and turkey suppliers, only 14 are rated "Step 5" or better.

PETA contacted Whole Foods last year and alleged that clerks working in its meat departments routinely misled shoppers about animal-welfare standards.  Whole Foods employees denied, for instance, that turkey beaks can be trimmed by meat suppliers, PETA reported, even though beak trimming is allowed at poultry suppliers rated lower than "Step 4." According to PETA, Whole Foods promised to re-educate its staff.

For a followup investigation into a Whole Foods supplier, PETA chose Sweet Stem Farm because there was a low-level job opening. Dan Paden, an associate director of evidence analysis at PETA, says an undercover activist employed by the group had a job at the farm until Sept. 4. PETA declined to name the activist or make her available for an interview.

Some experts see nothing inherently wrong with raising animals in confinement instead of an open pasture. Temple Grandin, a professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State University, believes in the possibility of creating humane conditions inside buildings. But food marketers have seized on popular notions of free-range animals as a way to motivate and sometimes deceive consumers. A few years ago, Grandin recalls, she challenged an egg producer whose cartons included a picture of a hen pecking in a pasture when she knew the egg-laying birds had been raised indoors. "It gets down to: You need to be doing what you say you are doing," she says.

Philip Horst-Landis, the co-owner of Sweet Farms, still hopes to get his pigs back on pasture, at least for the summer. For now, however, he admits he was a bit naïve to let Whole Foods shoot an animal-welfare video at at the farm back in 2009. Whole Foods took the video off its site. 

"When we were raising 80 pigs a year, raising pigs outside was feasible," he says. "I didn't understand that at a different scale that was difficult to pull off."

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