Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Wholesaler's Campaign for Better Ingredients

One of my favorite food writers is Mark Bittman, a columnist for The New York Times Opinion section and Times magazine. Every Tuesday, Bittman offers his take on current food issues and their impact on our health and the environment. His commentary also extends to the Times website, where he writes a blog called On Food.

On Food is less in depth than his Times column - Bittman (see photo on the right) mostly uses his blog to link to interesting stories or follow up on a point he made in one his opinion articles. Still, last week he posted a letter from a New York meat wholesaler to a well-known chef, which caught my eye.

The letter was sent by George Faison - a co-owner of Debragga and Spitler, which has been selling meat to the city's restaurants since the early 1920s. In the letter, Faison explains why he believes restaurants should be pursuing clean agricultural ingredients as standard practice.

While Bittman points out before printing the letter in its entirety that Faison sells industrially-produced meats in addition to naturally-raised stuff, the letter is interesting because meat wholesalers are a part of the food supply chain that I haven't given much thought to. Not to mention, Faison makes a pretty convincing argument for using better ingredients:
Our food supply system is broken. Badly. 80 percent of the U.S. beef production is controlled by four industrially producing companies. Three of these companies also process 60 percent of the nation’s pork. Too much chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used to produce our crops. The variety of crops produced around the world has diminished dramatically in the last 60 years. There are now nearly 5,000,000 fewer American farmers since the 1930s.

Yes, this industrial structure has significantly lowered the monetary cost of the food we consume. But this is misleading. While the amount of money we spend on food has declined, the quality and nutrition supplied by this food has deteriorated. As a country, about one third of all adults are obese, and since 1980, the incidence of obesity has tripled among children ages 2-19.
Faison's point is that "People have gotten used to eating cheap food and it is killing them." He therefore wants to promote naturally-raised meats that are antibiotic free and hormone free. Of course, he admits that cost can be an issue for restaurants:
Yes, naturally and humanely raised meats cost more. Maybe you can counter the higher monetary cost by offering smaller portions. Or expect chefs to charge more money for it.

I do not think the solution to our food supply problem is to use poorer quality ingredients because they cost less money. In the long run, the true cost of these meats is so much higher.
Promoting naturally-raised meat is commendable, but it's clearly also profitable. Indeed, in the comments section for the post, David Dadekian from Oneco, CT notes:
Chefs can educate by charging more. There's a small family-owned college bar & grill near the farm that has an "industrial" burger on their menu for $8 and a Blackbird Farm burger on the menu for $12. They tell us the $12 burger is a consistent seller.
Obviously charging more for higher-quality meat wouldn't work everywhere - this is New York City we're talking about, after all. But in such a competitive market, it seems like common sense to offer better food, even at higher prices.

It's also common sense that a meat wholesaler would be urging chefs to spend more on their ingredients, but it's an aspect of the food supply chain that I haven't given much thought to. Instead, I've generally thought that restaurants would improve their ingredients when prompted by consumers or a report in the The Boston Globe. Thanks to Bittman's On Food blog, I now know otherwise.

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