“An erosion of trust.” Why Belcampo’s mislabeled meat matters

Revelations that one of the company's shops was passing off commodity meat as organic and grass-fed from its own farm shook the industry.

I took this picture when I covered Belcampo’s opening in Hudson Yards for Edible Manhattan in 2019. (The location has since closed.) One observation I made at that time: “New Yorkers are also likely to expect a more comprehensive farm-to-table approach at a place with such high standards for meat, but the focus barely extends beyond the animals.”

In a 2017 interview, Forbes editor Susan Adams asked Anya Fernald to articulate her vision for Belcampo.

“To direct-market very high quality, organic meat that is fully source-verified. That means customers know exactly where the meat comes from and that it’s been farmed in the right way,” Fernald said.

But this was no quaint “chat with the farmer at her market table” kind of company. 

Fernald and her business partner Todd Robinson had launched Belcampo in 2012 with $50 million, in an attempt to shake up meat production and consumption on a national scale. The duo took the values and language of the “good meat” movement—think happy grass-fed cattle that build healthy soil and produce omega 3-rich meat—and paired it with Big Meat industry strategies around capital, vertical integration, and scale. They had their own ranch, processing plant, and a growing collection of butcher shop-restaurants in California and beyond.

The promise was clear: You could trust the supply chain, because the company owned everything, from pasture to plate.

Or could you?

Last week, Evan Reiner, a former butcher at the Santa Monica shop, posted a series of videos on Instagram showing commodity, corn-fed beef, commodity turkey, and grass-fed beef imported from Tasmania that he said were all being labeled as organic products of Belcampo’s California farm and sold at premium prices. Other employees have since come forward to back up his claims that outside meat was being mislabeled and sold at least for the past year.

Since the revelations, Fernald and the company’s public statements have claimed it was an isolated incident at one shop, in which protocols that were in place for outside meat to be labeled were not followed and that corporate leadership was unaware of the issue. Fernald has also referred to stresses placed on the company by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many customers and fans have graciously accepted her apologies and explanations on social media, but industry experts have not been nearly as satisfied. 

To begin with, in her initial statement, Fernald admitted that the shops were buying meat from elsewhere “when it comes to sourcing products for their local customer base or when there are supply shortages on certain items.” That cuts to the heart of what the company has always claimed to do and points to why the scandal has bigger implications for the future of the “good meat” movement. (Since then, the company says it switched to “exclusively selling Belcampo Farms and partner farms verified products in all of its shops, we are no longer allowing any external sourcing of product by the restaurants.”)

Long before Belcampo came on the scene, farmers, butchers, chefs, and entrepreneurs had been testing various models to figure out how to make the economics of regenerative grazing and pastured pork and poultry work so that producers and sellers could make a living without exploiting the environment, workers, or consumers. They had also been trying to figure out how to communicate the value of doing things differently in a world where the alternative—commodity meat—was so cheap and ubiquitous.

“It erodes the trust this movement was based on,” said Bryan Mayer, a veteran of the industry who (among other accomplishments) co-developed Fleishers’ butcher training program, which acted as a springboard for a new generation of butchers opening sustainability-focused shops across the country. “I know individuals in the Bay Area that have shops...and they're telling me that they're fielding questions that they haven't had to answer in 10 or 15 years, which is awesome on one level, because that's what we've always wanted, right? But on another level, you can see how far this could potentially set us back. It gives so much ammunition to those that say that the industry that we work in and what we care about doesn't work.”

Here’s what you need to know about what happened and why it matters.

Unwrapped: What happened?

Reiner is a butcher who previously worked at Gwen in Hollywood. He said he worked for Belcampo for about two and a half years, at both the Santa Monica and Downtown Los Angeles locations. Over the phone, he told me he posted the videos after he was fired due to a confrontation with a customer. Reiner said the customer was rude and unmasked, and that while he probably said some things he shouldn’t have, he felt his firing was unfair. 

At both locations prior to COVID-19, he said he rarely saw meat from other sources coming into the kitchens, but when he was moved back to the Santa Monica shop at the start of summer 2020, he said a large proportion of the butcher case was filled with “big marbled pieces of meat” ordered from suppliers like Rocker Brothers. In the videos, he shows grass-fed beef from Tasmania and multiple cuts of corn-fed commodity beef, including Black Angus beef he claims was “sold 47.99/lb as organic.” He also shows a box from Mary’s Chicken, which sells both organic and conventional chicken and Country Day turkey, a conventional turkey brand.

Reiner said he had recently visited Belcampo’s farm and that it no longer raised poultry at all. While the web store shows chicken is coming from an organic partner farm, Big Bluff Ranch, the company was still making it look like it was raising its own chickens as recently as this April.

In Fernald’s statement she said a “small percentage of total product” was affected by the “errors” and that “strict protocols” were in place to make sure non-Belcampo meat was labeled as such. Reiner said that if there were protocols, he never saw them. “We were told to hide it,” he said. “We were told to just put the normal tag in and....be careful around customers.”

Yesterday, Matthew Kang and Farley Elliott at Eater Los Angeles reported that four other Belcampo employees confirmed that the Santa Monica and West Third Street stores had been selling mislabeled meat from elsewhere for the past year, and both Rocker Brothers and West Coast Prime Meats, two large conventional meat distributors, have open accounts with Belcampo.

No one has been able to confirm whether or not Fernald knew what was going on at the shop. I asked her if she would speak to me or answer emailed questions, and she declined an interview on the basis that she didn’t want to talk before a “comprehensive audit” had been completed, which she said would provide her with more information as to what happened. In an initial statement provided to reporters, she said, “The preliminary results of our investigation show that unfortunately protocols both for sourcing and communicating product origin to customers were not being followed in our Santa Monica location.”

But people I spoke to scoffed at the idea that no one at the corporate level knew what was happening. “That is not how businesses work. We're not talking about somebody stealing meat out the back door or somebody pulling some money out of the till at the end of their shift,” Mayer said. “We're talking about the setting up of wholesale accounts. We're talking about PO numbers being issued. We're talking about the accounting department having to cut checks.”

Unwrapped: Why does it matter?

Obvious, it’s a bummer for customers who paid to buy what they thought was better meat and got something else entirely. But it’s bigger than that.

Melissa Cortina, the butcher and owner of Bavette Meat and Provisions and Wild Geese, filmed an Instagram Live in which she responded to various points Fernald made in a personal apology.

In the video, she said that for her, the laser focus on “vertical integration” at Belcampo had always been “a red flag.”  “Why do you want to be the Tyson Foods of good meat?” she asked. “Why do you want to own every aspect of the production?”

Mayer said that he doesn’t always see vertical integration as a bad thing but that he didn’t like the overall term for a similar reason—that it’s often associated with the industrial model. And in this case, the focus on growth ahead of what a regenerative farm can actually produce had seemed problematic even before Reiner’s videos of mislabeled meat surfaced. In other words, Mayer and others were not surprised the company was selling outside meat because the scale of the restaurants and retail businesses didn’t seem to match the size of the farm.

“There are a lot of smart people in this industry...who just look at the numbers and they go, ‘None of this pencils out. It's just pure math,” he said. “To me it's just based on greed. Like, how much do you need? Would Belcampo be any less significant if it just said, ‘Look, here's our farm, here's the carrying capacity of the land, we know how many animals we can fit on here, we know how many animals we can push through the slaughter floor...and so therefore we know how many animals we need to support our restaurant and our shops. You know? And that's the scale, right? But it’s not the type of scale that vertical integration needs, because vertical integration is based on infinite growth.”

Cortina made a similar point in her video. “There’s a reason growth takes so long, especially in ranching,” she said.

Animals are not widgets; you can’t just speed up manufacturing with the press of a button without causing some kind of harm. Industrial meat companies do things fast and cheap and make billions because they put animals in feedlots, feed the animals antibiotics to deal with illness caused by pushing them to grow too fast in close quarters, create dangerous conditions for workers via fast line speeds at slaughterhouses, and don’t have to account for all the waste that pollutes the environment. The system is insanely efficient, but it’s a failure based on almost any other metric.

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Mayer told me he doesn’t think that scale is a problem. Big or small, companies—meat companies included—can do things responsibly or not. But the issue is that especially given the new revelations around outside sourcing and mislabeling, how do ranchers, butchers, and companies committed to acting as an alternative to the status quo differentiate themselves from Belcampo, when the messaging sounds the same and Belcampo’s got a hell of a lot more money?

“The foundation for this movement is that we are the antidote to the commodity system. You know how our workers are treated, because you see us in front of your face, right? You know how are farmers are treated, because we tell you how much money we send to our farmers every week, right? All of this,” he said. “And so this is absolutely an erosion of the trust that we have.”

Companies like White Oak Pastures or butcher shops like Western Daughters and Hudson & Charles manage to stay in business day after day (while many others do not) despite being up against Smithfield and Tyson, but it is incredibly difficult and they’ll never make $50 million. They’re not trying to.

“It just depends on how you define success,” Mayer said. If your metric for success is to “dominate the good meat landscape” and to provide hefty returns to investors, it’s easy to see how you might choose to fill the case with marked-up cheaper meat rather than explaining to customers that some cuts aren’t available because the land can only handle a certain number of cattle at a time or operating fewer sales channels to match the farm’s real capacity.

At the end of the day, Mayer and others are disappointed because Belcampo’s public message was that they had “good meat” all figured out. Now that it looks like that wasn’t true, where does it leave those who are still trying? “We need more proven models that go against the industrial model,” he said.

Wrapped up, to go

*A former butcher at Belcampo’s Santa Monica shop posted videos of commodity meat and poultry being mislabeled and sold as organic and grass-fed products raised on the company’s own farm. Other employees have come forward to confirm the company was selling these outside meats over the past year.

*The company says it was an isolated incident and affected a small percentage of meat, but we do know that they were actively buying product to sell from commodity meat distributors. (They now say that is no longer allowed at the company.)

*Butchers and other insiders say the situation has broken trust in the industry and made things difficult for ranchers and meat sellers who are trying to build alternative models for the meat industry.

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A side of policy

Biden’s big budget request for fiscal year 2022 was released this week, and it included a 17 percent increase in funding for the US Department of Agriculture, with a lot of that money targeted towards climate initiatives. That includes money to expand “climate hubs” around the country to help farmers adopt practices that curb climate change and help them adapt to changes in weather as well as money for more climate-agriculture research. Congress will get the final say on spending.

Actually eating

This is a “big salad” approach dinner to we take at home a lot. It means making a really big salad with what we’ve got in the fridge, and we eat it together off of a platter, almost always with good bread. (Motzi’s whole grain baguette.) Pretty simple.

Spike made this one but I’m giving myself credit, too, because nearly all of the vegetables came from the farm I worked at all day…lettuce, radishes, peas, and a cucumber.

Let’s be friends

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