In his formative years as a chef, Conor Hanlon didn’t think too much beyond the kitchen.
“I was much more concerned about keeping my head above water than about where we were sourcing ingredients,” Chef Hanlon acknowledges.
But now, as executive chef of the W Hotels in Miami and chef de cuisine at its upscale eatery, The Dutch, sourcing is no longer an ignored topic.
Chef Hanlon’s broadened enlightenment began seven years ago when he read about the Mangalitsa pig, a little-known Hungarian breed characterized by its fatty, marbled meat. Fascinated, he spent four months trying to find the pig, often called the Kobe beef of pork. When he finally secured the animal and cooked it, the experience proved transformative.
“That’s when the light bulb went off in me,” Chef Hanlon says. “Whenever something is being raised, there’s someone behind it—and the way [that person] is raising the animal translates into its taste.”
In subsequent years, Chef Hanlon became increasingly more engrossed in the issue of animal welfare and how animal care translates to both the plate and the dining experience.
“Because I love what I do, I want humanely raised products,” he says.
A multi-layered issue touching hot-button topics such as animal rights, environmental stewardship, and social justice, animal welfare has become a frequently discussed subject in the restaurant industry, one propelled by consumers and chefs alike.
“This is everybody’s issue,” says Jason Gronlund, vice president of culinary for Smokey Bones, a 65-unit casual-dining chain based in Orlando. “Just because we have to feed the population doesn’t mean we can take shortcuts in the care of animals.”
Though animal welfare is a subjective term with shifting meaning among chefs, farmers, producers, and consumers, Meat & Livestock Australia business development manager Catherine Golding says the principal elements of animal welfare remain evenhanded and clear: Animals should be treated with respect and care according to best practices in animal husbandry throughout their lives.
That extends “from the paddocks they were born and raised in to when they are transported for sale and at the processing plant,” says Golding, whose organization works with industry and government in Australia to promote fact-based best practices in animal husbandry.
All Creatures Great and Small
From cattle and dairy to pork and poultry—and even farm-raised fish—animal welfare continues to weave into the public’s consciousness. Cage-free and pasture-raised are no longer fringe terms, but pepper grocery store aisles and restaurant menus.
Dan Gibson has witnessed the transformation firsthand.
After experiencing 9/11 in New York City, Gibson traded fast-paced Manhattan for life on the farm. In 2002, he built a grass-fed herd at Grazin’ Angus Acres in Ghent, New York, and began selling in New York’s green market system in 2006. Even among the most conscientious chefs, Gibson says many struggled to understand the advantages of his meats compared with those arriving from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). Over time, he says, that has changed.
“There’s a significant and growing amount of the population that cares about this issue and is voting with their pocketbook every day,” Gibson says.
The burgeoning movement inspired Gibson to open Grazin’, a diner serving only Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) products, in 2011. AWA is a labeling program for meat and dairy goods that ensures animals were raised to the highest welfare and environmental standards.
Located in Hudson, New York, Grazin’ is a hit among the locals and frequently serves guests who have made the 120-mile trip from New York City specifically to visit his eatery. In 2014, sales jumped nearly 50 percent over the previous year. Those results and swelling interest have motivated Gibson to locate a Grazin’ outpost in New York City later this year.
“And we’re not going to stop there,” Gibson says.
Today’s consumers, many contend, are more sophisticated and interested in food than ever, accessing millions of resources to explore all aspects of food, from nutrition’s impact on the body to ethical sourcing.
“Food is in the consumers’ sight all the time now … and as demands change, you have to abide by that,” Smokey Bones’ Gronlund says, specifically noting the rise of organic goods and paleolithic diets.
According to AWA, raising animals intensively, either indoors or confined on dirt feedlots, harms animal welfare and, ultimately, human health and the greater environment. The organization, which is based in Arlington, Virginia, charges that headline-grabbing news about the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, environmental pollution, and animal-welfare abuses spotlight the broken nature of the nation’s food system. Furthermore, AWA contends that the nutritional quality of meat, milk, and eggs is intrinsically linked to the welfare of animals and the impact of farming systems on the environment.
“Shouldn’t we all want to make sure that animals’ needs and wants are met?” AWA program director Andrew Gunther asks.
For many, the answer is a definitive yes, which has heightened calls for the elimination of cages and crates, and driven awareness around the ethical sourcing of animal products as well as restaurants’ roles and responsibilities.
Gunther calls animal welfare a “market pressure that’s coming,” and one that is only going to grow given Gen Y’s interest in social and environmental issues.
“All chefs should have this on their horizon because it’s vital to their business, especially given how much the market has shifted towards people wanting to know the background of their food,” Gunther says. “It’s better to get ahead of the game and secure your place in the market rather than sit on your hands.”
A more conscientious and questioning populace, meanwhile, has urged restaurants to define their brands by deeply vetting sources and pushing humanely raised goods as a marketplace differentiator. As Smokey Bones’ Gronlund notes, no restaurant wants negative press.
Increasingly, serving the greater good extends from the flavor on the plate to all the practices and processes involved in food preparation.
“Though it costs more to serve free-range chicken, it’s a product you can stand behind and be proud to serve,” Chef Hanlon says.
Looming beyond the ethical concerns and marketplace movement, however, there’s the critically important issue of taste. Beef, lamb, and other animal products raised according to best practices in animal husbandry simply taste better, many argue.
“It is a more tender, juicy, and, overall, just better-tasting meat,” Golding contends.
By returning to the original practices of animal husbandry, a counter to the mass commercialization of food, Chef Hanlon believes animals enjoy richer diets that result in more robust flavor profiles on the plate. He says the pasture-raised cattle of Australia avoid the sweet, starchy taste of their corn-fed domestic counterparts.
“When you put cattle in a lot and feed them the same product day after day, there’s no diversity,” Chef Hanlon says. “When the cattle are in a pasture, however, eating different grasses and grains each day, those flavors come through.”
Put more succinctly, he says: “Why take an animal that never ate corn and make it eat corn? It doesn’t make sense.”
Celebrity chef Elizabeth Falkner, a James Beard Award nominee, believes a comparative taste test would deliver clear results.
“If more people tasted an animal that had been cared for and one that had been neglected, they would come to the same conclusion,” Chef Falkner says. “You can just taste the difference.
“And if nothing else,” she continues, “at least there has to be better karma in sourcing products from animals that have been treated the right way.”
Clarifying the Cause
While many can be sold on the rationale of sourcing goods from humanely raised animals, actually bringing those goods into the restaurant is a process that presents its own hurdles.
Rising consumer interest in food sourcing has created a litany of packaging terms that spark more confusion than clarity. According to AWA’s guide, Food Labels Exposed, terms such as fresh and all-natural have little meaning. Fresh, for instance, simply means that the internal temperature of the meat never dropped below 26 degrees Fahrenheit.
Similarly, all-natural has nothing to do with animal welfare, but rather signals that the meat contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed. Even the term humane is employed loosely on packaging.
“Humane claims are now widely used to convince consumers the food manufacturer is making a special effort in the way animals are raised. However, there is no legal definition or minimum welfare standard for the term humane,” AWA reports.
This uncontrolled Wild West image of labeling has given defined third-party credentials—such as AWA or Certified Humane, two organizations that both perform birth-to-slaughter audits—added credence in the marketplace.
“These third-party agencies give credibility and also brand protection,” Gunther says, adding that leaning on a third-party helps a restaurant counter arguments between animal rights groups and producers.
Cattle and sheep products sourced from Australia, Golding adds, are also raised according to strict animal-welfare regulations. “The standards are legislated by law and enforced by state governments across the country,” she says.
At Smokey Bones, Gronlund says his team leans on its Australian-based vendor, JBS, to ensure the animal goods that Smokey Bones’ procures are humanely harvested and meet the restaurant chain’s defined specifications.
“We’re 100 percent clear in our expectations,” Gronlund says.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of price, a supremely important matter in an industry known for tight margins and intense competition. According to the AWA’s Gunther, the markup on some humanely raised products is significant. AWA-approved chicken, for instance, can be twice as expensive as other options in the marketplace.
Gibson, who is also a supplier to restaurants, says it takes much longer to finish cattle on grass, about three times as long as the 12–15 months needed at a CAFO. That investment of time is reflected in his prices. Ground meat goes for $10 per pound while filet runs $40 per pound. To some operators, absorbing higher prices is simply the cost of doing business in an evolving, more curious, and conscientious society.
At Grazin’, his own restaurant, Gibson simply charges what he needs to and explains the deeper value inherent in his products.
“There are lots of people who don’t think about livestock, but they’re not my customer,” Gibson says. “If you’re mindful about how an animal is raised, taken, and processed—and that’s important to you—then you’re going to seek me out. It’s that simple.”
Others, however, understand the need to be more flexible, nimble, and strategic in their sourcing. Competing in the casual-dining category, Gronlund says Smokey Bones must balance sourcing and pricing to stay cost-efficient and competitive. He says that process begins by looking at the restaurants’ target consumers and determining their hot-button issues.
“You have to know what matters to your customers,” he says.
To test that, Falkner says restaurants might ease into sourcing humanely raised products, perhaps investing in items it can first spotlight as specials before committing to regular menu items. “Then, track the success of those products and see if there’s a correlation,” Falkner says.
To further combat the higher costs, Gunther says some chefs decrease the portion size and take care to explain their sourcing efforts, which positions the restaurant to earn guest loyalty.
Falkner suggests restaurant leaders educate their service staff on where products come from and, in the case of animals, how they are treated. Front-of-the house staff can then relay this information to diners to build a more compelling story.
In addition, Falkner says restaurants might buy cuts that are not prime and use such products strategically, such as using the humanely raised product to complement the main entrée.
It’s a theory Chef Hanlon subscribes to at The Dutch. In November, for instance, Chef Hanlon topped a dish of roasted baby root vegetables with lamb shoulder braised with red wine. He then pulled apart the lamb and served it as a rich sauce over the vegetables.
“It’s about finding a happy medium,” Chef Hanlon says.
As informed by the past as he is in tune with the future, Chef Hanlon acknowledges he needs to selectively pick his battles concerning animal welfare and sourcing. His team at the W Hotels uses up to 1,000 eggs each day, an immense volume that makes obtaining free-range eggs cost-prohibitive. Still, he remains mindful and committed to other ways he can source humanely raised goods.
“No one opens a restaurant to close the restaurant,” Chef Hanlon says. “I have to pick the things that are important to me and run with that in a smart way. It’s about being realistic and pragmatic. We can’t do it all, but we can do some things that make a difference.”