A Big Push to Move Meat Production from Terrible to Just Bad

Consider meat. It's bad for the planet. It's bad for your health if you eat too much of it, which most Americans do. (We eat three times more than the global average.) As for animal welfare, trust me, you don't want to think about it.

Helene York is a vegetarian, but as director of strategic sourcing and research at Bon Appetit Management Co., a big food-service company, she needs to think about meat. This week, Bamco made a serious commitment to change the way it buys pork, beef, poultry and eggs.

First, the company said, it will

stop serving all pork produced using the cruel and inhumane practice of gestation crates and all eggs, including "liquid" ones (those removed from their shells), from hens confined to battery cages by 2015.

This won't be easy. About 90 percent of female pigs are raised in metal cages so small that a pregnant sow cannot even turn around. This commitment aims to eliminate one of the worst practices in the meat industry.

Bon Appetit said it will also aim to drive best practices by promising that, by 2015,

at least 25 percent of all our meat, poultry, and eggs will meet the highest animal welfare standards, as verified by the independent third parties Animal Welfare Approved, Food Alliance, Humane Farm Animal Care, or Global Animal Partnership. These four groups don't just ban gestation crates and battery cages, they prohibit routine antibiotics and all hormones, and reward producers for allowing animals to engage in their natural behaviors.

The news from Bon Appetit, which provides cafeteria food and catering to more than 400 companies, colleges and other venues in 31 states, comes in the wake of an announcement that McDonald's -- which, of course, is much bigger -- will ask its pork suppliers to phase out gestation crates. (A stunned Mark Bittman wrote OMG: McDonald's Does the Right Thing.) Bon Appetit and McDonald's made their announcements in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, an animal rights group.

Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups and companies led by WWF and including McDonald's and Cargill that is known as the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef yesterday announced its own plans to support small-scale farmers around the world who commit to raising beef in ways that limit their environmental footprint.

This all sounds like good news, but I asked York, as a vegetarian, whether these efforts to make meat kinder and greener might invite people to consume more beef. Why not try harder to discourage meat consumption?

"We're doing that, too," Helene said, reminding me of her work developing an climate-friendly diet for Bon Appetit. [See my 2009 blog post, The Low Carb(on) Diet.] Beef consumption is down by 30 percent at Bon Appetit locations, she said, but despite the company's effort to promote vegetarian fare, their customers who eat less beef are now consuming more pork and chicken.

"We have reduced the amount of meat we serve per person," she said. "But people are going to eat meat. It's not for me to decide they shouldn't. But I do want them to eat more responsible meat."

She's been pushed hard in that direction by Fedele Bauccio, Bon Appetit's co-founder and CEO, who as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production visited so-called factory farms and saw their impact on animals and the environment. Bauccio told Tim Carman of The Washington Post:

I really believe that everything stems from factory farms. Everything from the issues of safe food to public health to the dead zones in the ocean to what seeps into the waterways. It's disgusting.

Disgusting it may be, but time and money will be required to change the way pigs and chickens are raised. As York noted in an insightful blog post at Civil Eats, a website about the politics of food:

most pigs are raised by quasi-independent smaller producers, not corporate-owned hog farms. These guys have made capital investments in these hideous confinement technologies and it will take serious money to make changes -- the kind of capital that isn't readily available unless their giant corporate pork-contract holders extend them credit to make changes.

Helene told me that the company's goal isn't to create an alternative food system that is small-scale and humane but to change the way business is done at industry giants like Smithfield Foods (which has promised to phase out gestation crates by 2017), Seaboard Foods and Tyson. Like it or not, big farms are more efficient, she notes:

Much as I hate to admit it, we actually need the big producers in this mix. Many people deeply believe that our food system would be vastly improved if we just went back to our agrarian past of small farmers. Yet that's not how most people are going to feed themselves. It's too expensive, at least for the foreseeable future.

Interesting, all of this corporate activity is unfolding as Americans are eating less meat. Beef, chicken and pork consumption are all falling. That's encouraging.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I'm eating less meat for a host of reasons. I'd like to cut back further. As Michael Pollan memorably advises: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And hey, if Bill Clinton, once famed for his love of Big Macs and fried chicken, can go vegan, anyone can.

Cow photo via Shutterstock.