Seeking local, sustainable alternatives to factory farmed meat isn’t easy, especially when it comes to pork.
Pork has been on my mind ever since June, when the animal rights group Mercy for Animals publicized a disturbing undercover video from a farm in Iowa, owned by Iowa Select Farms, a company that provides meat to Brazil-based JBS, which sells to Costco, Safeway, Kroger or Hy-Vee (and has pictures of cows grazing on open, green pastures on its website).
I also called the producer of my favorite bacon, Zoe’s Meats, a much smaller company that I discovered through my weekly delivery from SPUD, Sustainable Produce Urban Delivery, recently rebranded from Small Potatoes Urban Delivery.
I had been wondering for a long time what the story behind Zoe’s Meats was. The company has a website with some pretty vague language under its environment tab: “At Zoe’s Meats, we are committed to sustaining this earth for our children to enjoy. We feel a strong responsibility to continually seek ways to reduce our environmental footprint.”
Pictures of animals grazing outside accompany the text along with the words “Sustaining Our Environment.”
At the very least, I knew there were local connections with the company because Zoe’s has offices in Seattle and California. And SPUD’s website claims: “This product traveled 1 miles to reach our warehouse.”
“Oh, cool,” I thought, “they must be using local meat, too.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
None of the pork in Zoe’s fine line of products comes from anywhere near Seattle. Most of it comes from the Midwest.
Zoe’s co-owner, George Gavros, said he hopes to get the error on SPUD’s website corrected.
He said Zoe’s meats come from 156 ranches of all sizes. Animals are processed at various slaughterhouses, seven in all, and end up at 14 processing facilities, positioned strategically around the country.
When meat isn’t available in large enough quantities from the farms Zoe’s owners like to use, it can sometimes come from factory farms, such as Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, based in Virginia.
Gavros spent more than an hour on the phone with me trying to explain the extreme challenges of running a pork-centric company on the West Coast.
He said if he could buy more expensive sustainable pork and simply pass the price on to consumers, he would.
But the supply just isn’t there, and the logistics are too prohibitive for Zoe’s unique business model: Zoe’s, which produces bacon, sausage and other gourmet charcuterie, doesn’t buy whole hogs, just legs, bellies, shoulders and trim.
Gavros, who named the company after one of daughters, said his first-choice farms are those he might feel comfortable visiting with his daughters.
But he can’t always do that.
“We have to buy from large companies. We do buy some pork from Smithfield. We don’t have enough raw ingredients,” he said. “We’ve got a formula that allows us to buy these products at a certain price when it’s available.
“When it’s not available, we can’t just call our customers and say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to deliver it to you today.’ We tried buying stuff in the greater Washington area.”
Gavros said Zoe’s, which sells mostly to restaurants, is willing to work with small and even local farmers who can produce meat consistently and are willing to grow a bit to meet Zoe’s needs.
“We’ll talk to somebody who is producing 30 pigs a week. If they want to raise more pigs, (they can) tell us what the forecast looks like, and we’ll give (them) a purchase order. We try to buy whatever parts of the animal that they have in excess. That allows them to sell to the rest of them at farmers markets.”
That’s something special, if and when Zoe’s is able to do it, of course.
Zoe’s situation highlights the cold, harsh reality of the modern wanna-be-green, wish-we-were-more-local business model: Sometimes what a business wants to do isn’t the same as what it can deliver 100 percent of the time or even sometimes, especially in this brutal economy.
It all sounds surprisingly familiar to another local meat company I know: Hempler’s of Whatcom County, which is local but gets its meats from the Midwest, Ireland, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.
Bill the Butcher, a beloved chain of Seattle-area meat shops, came under fire last year for refusing to name all the sources of its meats. The Stranger accused the company of greenwashing.
I think businesses should stop saying that they “are committed” to be sustainable or “support” green practices “whenever possible” because sometimes it’s just not feasible at all.
We consumers can start to feel like their meat is greenwashed, rather than green.
I don’t think SPUD and Zoe’s are trying to mislead customers. SPUD, which reports their products’ food miles even when they are high and unflattering, is one of the most transparent green companies I know.
And Zoe’s, to its credit, is doing more than most meat companies to be green and clean in a very tricky business. And, like Hempler’s, at least they’re a business with local ties to the Seattle-Everett area.
What can consumers who yearn for 100 percent feel-good meat do?
Buy local. Meet your meat farmer, if you can. Here’s how.
Buy by the cut
Don’t like chops, butts and shoulders? Buy only the pork you want by the cut from Skagit River Ranch or another small farmer. You can find Skagit River Ranch meats at either the farm in Sedro-Woolley or at Seattle-area farmers markets, which are always selling meat, all year long.
Blue Valley Meats, an operation that took over for the ill-fated but beloved Thundering Hooves outfit out of Walla Walla, is now making neighborhood deliveries throughout the Puget Sound region. Their pork comes from a farm in Ephrata that reportedly allows the pigs to roam.
Butcher your own
Local pig expert Bruce King, who offers pig slaughtering and processing classes, can take you from live pork to primal cuts with his classes in rural Everett. Instruction is about six hours and costs $500, which includes a live pig or you can bring your own. King’s next classes are in October. Click here for details.