Nicolette Hahn Niman on Private Label Food and Organic Beef – The TFT Reader Investigation Continues…
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Thanks to some truly amazing reader researchers, and a stroke of good luck, I got the chance last week to speak at length with Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Righteous Porkchop and wife of sustainable rancher Bill Niman, about both private-label foods and our ongoing look at the organic ground beef conundrum.
First, a little background on Niman: She is a lawyer by trade, and she was the Senior Attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, under Robert Kennedy, Jr., where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry. Before that, she was an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. She’s also an author, and a blogger for HuffPo and The Atlantic. She has been a vegetarian for 20-odd years, but is nonetheless a tireless advocate for sustainable ranching. Through her decades of research, including the several years she has spent on a sustainable ranch in California, she says she has come to realize that animals are an integral part of sustainable farming, and that the idea that you can eat in such a way that no animals will be harmed in the production of your food is a myth.
Her views have made her controversial at times, but Niman tends not to voice an opinion unless it’s backed up by scientific research and buoyed by her own decades of work in the field. Plus, most people find it difficult to argue with a nearly lifelong vegetarian who is as committed as Niman is to promoting sustainable meat production. When I mentioned the whole dairy cows being sold as organic beef thing to her, she said she and her husband had just been discussing that very thing.
“The first thing people need to realize is that, for the most part, all dairy cows eventually become ground beef,” she says. “That’s something that vegetarians often don’t realize and don’t particularly like to think about. I myself didn’t realize it for a long time.”
At one point in the not so distant past, about half of the beef in the United States came from dairy cows, according to Niman. Then the dairy industry set about making dairy cows bigger–a lot bigger. Now, Niman says the amount a dairy cow produces has increased almost sevenfold in the last few decades. “What that means is we actually have fewer dairy cows and a lower proportion of dairy cows vs. beef cattle, but they’ve [dairy cows] always played a major role in beef production,” she explains.
But while Niman has known for some time that most dairy cows wind up as ground beef, she says she was unaware until recently that dairy cows in today’s organic milk industry are going into organic meat sales. “That’s something I just found out within the last year,” she says. “I’m not troubled by that if those are pasture-based dairies–I’ve been on quite a few and read about and seen photos of totally grass-fed dairies and those are excellent environments; the cows have a high quality of life and grass is a very natural diet for cattle.”
“I think to label the beef from those cows as organic is an okay thing to do because it meets consumer expectations for animal welfare and I also think it meets largely their expectations as far as food safety and health advantages when they’re buying organic,” Niman continues. “But, there have been a large number of organic dairy cows in the US that are living in confinement–for example, at the Aurora and Horizon dairies–where the operators had to let them outside in order to meet the National Organic Program’s pasture requirement, and they were just letting them out on dirt lots. The grazing time was zero or close to zero. So selling that beef to consumers as organic? I think that is misleading to customers and should not be permitted.”
Even with the pasture-raised example, I think most consumers would be surprised, so I think you could definitely say that that information should be available to consumers, but I don’t think it’s AS concerning as the idea of the confined dairy cows being sold as organic ground beef.
With regards to private-label foods in general, Niman says the problem is really information and quality assurance. “The Niman Ranch model is such that there’s a set group of farms they get meat from and they don’t get it from anywhere else and all of those farms have to follow certain standards,” she explains. “That’s a great approach stores could take. They could say something like ‘We only source from within 100 miles and here are the standards we demand.’ Consumers still have to rely on the store to enforce those standards, but I think it’s a strong system and I do think they’re kind of moving in that direction. I mean Whole Foods has put a lot of effort into drafting their humane standards, and I know Trader Joe’s is following standards for their sourcing as well.”
According to Niman, Trader Joe’s is probably more able than most stores to move in the direction of having standards and transparency because it’s part of their business model to have relatively few products on their shelves. “They do almost everything in private label. They had Niman Ranch do stuff and didn’t private label it because the brand has so much value, but there was a lot of discussion about that – they really wanted it to be private label, as much as they liked having the brand,” she says.
But while other TFT sources have said the store, like Wal-Mart and other retailers, often applies pressure on suppliers to lower their prices, Niman says her husband’s experience was not that at all. “What Bill found was that they were not constantly applying price pressure on them; they have ways that they reduce their costs in order to deliver lower prices, so it’s not about trying to nickel and dime their suppliers, in our experience.”
As for super private-label producers–companies that only do private-label items for stores, and about which it’s difficult for consumers to find any information at all–Niman says consumers should put the pressure on stores to tell them more. “I think it really boils down to the idea that consumers really need to do some homework and see what they can trust,” she says. “If it’s a store that people have faith in–and consumers should really think about that and ask themselves: Is this a store that demonstrates to consumers that it’s doing its homework? That it’s trying to be transparent, has animal and land stewardship standards in place, that sort of thing? If you can see a store is doing that, then I don’t think it’s necessarily problematic that a farm doesn’t have its own brand. But with a private label product, consumers should be asking, literally at the meat case or dairy counter, ‘How do you know this is organic?’”
Teaser: Niman also let us in on yet another beef scandal. We’re digging into it a bit more and plan to bring you the scoop this week.
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