Tracing Your Food: Farm to Table Is Not as Easy as It Sounds. The TFT Reader Investigation Continues…
As our food systems have grown increasingly complex over the past 50-odd years, it has become more and more difficult for consumers to know where their food comes from and how it made its way from a farm to their table. Even if you’re buying directly from the farmer, there comes a point in time where the consumer simply has to trust that what the producer is telling them is true. The same goes for retailers, which have to assume that, for example, the dairy selling them certified organic milk is actually certified. Not every store can have its own team of food auditors out there ensuring that everything is as it appears to be. That job is supposed to belong to the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but both of those departments are understaffed and over-influenced by industrial agriculture.
That leaves the job of evaluating food claims essentially to consumers and consumer watchdog groups. Unfortunately, in many cases, consumers have to be food experts to decipher food labels, much less to find the information not printed on labels. In the case of milk and meat, however, there are tracking numbers that will give consumers at least a bit more information. The numbers have to be there in case of food recalls, but they also help give consumers a clearer picture of where their food comes from.
In a comment on our Trader Joe’s story, one reader shared the website Where Is My Milk From?, a great resource for tracking milk cartons back to their source. Just go to the site and type in the code stamped on your carton (see image below) – sometimes it is printed or stamped on the label, sometimes it’s stamped on the carton and sometimes it’s indented into the carton, but it’s always two numbers followed by either a dash or a space and then two to five other numbers. The first two number correspond to the state, and the following numbers correspond to the plant.
I punched in the numbers from a Whole Foods 365 organic milk carton and got California as the state (that makes sense, I live in California), but the plant number (187) was listed as invalid. Frankly, it was almost impossible to see the plant imprint on the carton (it was indented into the cardboard carton at the top, near the mouth), but I tried every permutation of that number and still came up with nothing. The Trader Joe’s-brand organic milk was much easier to trace. The number 06-691 was printed in clear black ink on the label. When I punched it in I got a map showing me the location: Clover Stornetta Farms in Petaluma, California. It’s a great dairy whose branded products I buy with confidence all the time–so that’s peace of mind on my milk purchase and a new item for our expanding list of Trader Joe’s items (I’ll post an updated version this week for those of you who want a copy).
Unfortunately, while many dairies process their own products, ranches do not typically process their own meat. Instead, carcasses are shipped to a processing plant where meat is cut (or ground) and packaged. To trace your meat packages, look for the little white USDA circle: It will say “U.S.” in bold and then “Inspected and passed by the Department of Agriculture,” followed by a bold “EST” and a number (see image below). That number corresponds to the packing house the meat came from. If you search on Google or Scribd, you’ll find the plant name, but you’ll need to contact the plant to find out where the meat actually came from and you’re not guaranteed answers.
As part of the TFT Reader Investigation, we have been trying to find out if any dairies are illegally selling converted organic cattle as organic beef (a dairy cow can be converted to organic over the course of three years, but to be certified organic beef, a cow has to be managed organically from its third trimester on). So far, we’ve managed to track Trader Joe’s private-label ground organic beef to a packing house in Southern California called Culver City Meats.
When I called and emailed to find out where the meat was coming from, I got the following answer, via email: “All of our cattle is raised in the USA 100% Angus mostly from the Midwest.”
I followed up to ask where their organic beef came from in particular and got no response. I’ve been following up, but if a few readers could join the effort, that might convince them to share more information. Following is information for the account executive I’ve been dealing with:
(323)973-4049 (direct line)
(818) 917-9922 (cell)
While I’m waiting for Melissa to get back to me, I tracked a few other packages of Trader Joe’s 100% Grass Fed Organic Ground Beef back to Culver City Meat Company as well, so they seem to be the primary supplier for California stores at least. I also tracked Whole Foods grass fed organic ground beef to Panorama, which lists the following information on its site: “Panorama Organic Grass-Fed Beef™ cattle are raised by family ranchers in Northern California, Southern Washington, Southern Oregon and Wyoming on USDA Certified Organic pastures of natural grasses, legumes and range forage. Panorama’s beef is sold at Whole Foods Market stores throughout Northern California, Oregon, Nevada, Washington, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico and Utah, and to independent retail grocers. We also sell direct to the consumer through Abundant Harvest Organics, an alliance of small family farmers in central California.”
The North American Organic Ground Beef I found at Costco I traced to Dakota Farms Natural Beef, one of the few ranching operations in the country that births, raises and processes its cattle all within its own facilities. But while the company uses no antibiotics or hormones, manages its land responsibly and plans to participate in the forthcoming Certified Humane labeling program, it has no information on its site about whether its cows are in confinement throughout their lives or not, or what the cattle are fed.
Next up: Wal-Mart. In the meantime, a free package of ground beef to the first five readers willing to either trace a package or help me pester Culver City Meat Company for information. Just post a comment here or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About TFT Reader Investigations: First we asked you to vote on the topic you wanted to investigate together with our reporter. It was a new experiment in journalism, which caught the attention of the Columbia Journalism Review. Now the voting is over and we have a winner: generic and private label foods. To track our progress, please check out the earlier installments of the investigation series.
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