How Natural Is that Dean & Deluca Beef? The TFT Reader Investigation Continues…
Every once in awhile when I’m researching a story, I come across a lie told so openly no one suspects it to be anything but the truth. This one is a whopper. A company called Brandt Beef, which markets itself as “The True Natural,”and is the primary supplier to Dean & Deluca, supplying what the gourmet retailer describes as “high-quality sustainable beef,” operates what is pretty clearly a standard feedlot. Its corn-fed steers are male dairy calves, raised almost entirely in confinement … not exactly what springs to mind when you think of “natural, sustainable beef.”
If you’re a regular reader of this series, you know by now that a few weeks ago a reader referred us to an ace source in the meat industry, who we refer to as Beef Throat. When we spoke with him, Beef Throat referred us on to Nicolette Hahn Niman, wife of rancher Bill Niman and author of the book Righteous Porkchop. Although she’s a vegetarian herself, Niman is an outspoken advocate of sustainable meat production. We talked to her last week about private-label foods, and our ongoing investigation into whether or not some private-label organic dairies are illegally selling converted dairy cows as organic beef. But Niman also suggested we look into Brandt, a company she said chefs were always asking her about and which seemed to be operating in a pretty unnatural way for a company that marketed its beef as natural and sustainable.
We took her suggestion and contacted Brandt to get some more details about how their steers are raised. Managing partner Eric Brandt was happy to oblige and confirmed everything Niman had said. It’s a clear case of consumers just needing to look past marketing and labels a bit. Or of the FDA needing to enforce labeling laws that protect consumers, not companies.
First off, it’s important to point out that the label “natural” doesn’t really mean anything. On its website, the USDA defines the use of the term: “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and that is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural. The label must explain the use of the term natural (such as – no added colorings or artificial ingredients; minimally processed.)”
Last year the agency revised its rules on using “natural” or “naturally raised” on meat products, stating, ““Livestock used for producing meat and meat products have been raised entirely without growth promotants or antibiotics (except for ionophores used as coccidiostats for parasite control) and were never fed animal byproducts.”
Unfortunately, recommendations that Niman and many other sustainable ranchers made, encouraging the USDA to include such things as humane management and grazing to the term, fell on deaf ears.
Brandt, to its credit does not use antibiotics or hormones in the raising of its steers. “We do allow antibiotics when they’re babies; in their first three months they can get a therapeutic antibiotic if they get sick,” Brandt says. “We feel like it’s too early to not use antibiotics if they get sick. But for the next 18 months or whatever their lifespan is there’s no antibiotics.”
The company also only has steers and it knows where every one of them comes from. Brandt sells every part of its steers, and uses their waste as compost to grow the alfalfa the steers sometimes eat. It’s a family-run, independent business.
The thing is, up to that point, their story is pretty good. They can make some claims to sustainability, they’ve got the family-run business thing going, and they don’t use hormones or antibiotics. On the other hand, their steers are all male dairy calves that are taken from their mothers after a day or so and placed in a nursery where they’re fed artificial milk until they go to the Brandt feedlot and start eating corn. Were they not making a big point of marketing how sustainable and natural their meat is, that might not be such an issue, but that appears to be the company’s primary marketing strategy and it seems patently misleading to consumers.
A few facts, right out in the open on Brandt’s own site:
- The company’s tagline is “The True Natural.”
- The beef is sold at farmers’ markets as a “natural” beef. It’s also sold direct to restaurants and at gourmet grocery stores, including Dean & Deluca and Cronig’s Market on the East Coast, and Harvest Ranch Markets and Hows Markets on the West Coast.
- If you go to their website now, the first Flash photo you will see is of mountains of corn, with the words “Corn-fed for more than 365 days.”
- If you click on the “About” page of the company’s website, you’ll see a photo of the Brandt family, right in front of the pens they confine their cattle in.
- In the “Commitment to Sustainability” section of the site, you can read about how the farm grows hay to feed to the animals, how the animals’ waste is composted and how the farm makes an effort to create a pleasant and safe environment for local owls. The only line there about the cows is this one: “Brandt Beef maintains a “farm-to-fork” philosophy which involves raising its animals humanely and naturally without hormones or the use of antibiotics.”
That last sentence is where the problems begin. For most people, raising a cow humanely does not correlate to keeping them in crowded confinement pens and never allowing them to graze. When I asked Brandt if his steers ever graze, his answer was simple and straightforward: “No, they’re on a feedlot.”
The odd thing is that Brandt has gotten so many people to buy its “natural” image without really making any effort to hide its practices.
The reason I’m especially annoyed about Brandt beef is that I’ve had chefs–more than three or four–who are committed to sustainable sourcing ask me what I think about Brandt,” Niman explains. “They were told either by distributors or by Brandt salespeople that this was this great natural beef that they should try, and they wanted to know if I had heard of it and what I thought. I was sitting on the Chef’s Collaborative national board for the past three years, and the organization’s mission is to encourage sustainable sourcing, so I was doing a lot of direct work with chefs, and I wanted to get them answers. The first thing I did was look at the website carefully and they acknowledge there that their stock is all male dairy cows grown in feedlots.
Brandt, however, is unapologetic about both the feedlot and the corn feeding.
For hundreds of thousands of years the market has been driven toward quality and corn-feeding and the marbling of the beef and now some people overdo it, yes, and they’ve used antibiotics to speed things up and are feeding to excessive levels, which isn’t healthy for the animal, and because of that it’s created a stigma, and in certain respects it’s not correct,” Brandt explains. “The industry has gone too far, but you can do it correctly – you can give them a balanced feed and not have to give them antibiotics their whole life. I just got back from Japan and they’ve perfected the art of corn feeding.
It’s about quality, and quality comes from grain-feeding,” Brandt continues. “I disagree with the argument that cattle are not meant to eat corn; if you put cows in a field of corn they’ll mow it down, because there’s nutrition there. It’s all a vegetarian diet. If you go to the Bible and read about the slaughter of a fatted calf–the fat one didn’t eat grass, I’ll tell you that right now.”
The corn question, while interesting, is somewhat irrelevant in this case. The bigger problem is: Can you call something “natural” and “humanely raised” if it’s raised in confinement on a feedlot?
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Attorney Actually Starting to Believe Own Bullshit
- 10 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook