Los Ojos, 4 January 2018
Happy New Year! It’s been quite a long while since I’ve written – we’ve been busy, and for some reason the blog post is always first thing that I drop. Writing these posts always feels like the least important thing on the list. Stop to think for a second, though, and I realize that it’s not – these little writings are actually one of the more important things I have to do. Not because I have some illusion that anyone is waiting bated breath to hear the latest observations, but because the act of writing them is valuable in and of itself. It’s my chance to think through why we do what we do, and how we do it. I find it very easy to rush around doing in the day-to-day and simply lose sight of where we’re going, so writing these posts serves the very important purpose of forcing me to sit in one place and actually think through my larger vision and how whatever I’m doing fits into it.
To put it another way, writing these forces me to reason through what I think. My observation has been that many people I talk to – probably most – don’t really know what they think about any given topic. Oh, they have no shortage of opinions and views, but that’s not quite the same thing: just as you can’t claim to really know a thing until you are able to teach someone else, you can’t properly claim to think a thing until you can articulate it in a sequence of comprehensible sentences that logically flow from one to another. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t do that for any given position, you don’t actually think it – you just believe it, basically holding it as an uninformed opinion.
It’s a high bar, I know, but it’s important. If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you have no way to measure success or evaluate progress. The end result is that these little blog posts are important because they force me to do an azimuth check, making sure not only that we’re on our charted course, but that the course is appropriate to take us where we want to be. I’ll spare you my lecture on measures of performance (MOP) vs. measures of effectiveness (MOE).
The specific circumstance that prompts this set of reflections on the importance of having and reinforcing a vision is that I’ve been looking through meat industry publications. Every time I do, I find myself amazed and appalled in equal measure: the scale the enterprise has achieved is a triumph of human ingenuity and brilliant engineering, but it comes at a significant cost. Meat production is more efficient than ever – I read about one planned facility that will come on line with the capacity to process 16,000 hogs per day. The benefits of this kind of scale are real and compelling: this is how US agriculture is able to feed the world. The cost, though, comes in terms of the quality of the product and the welfare of both people and animals within the system. These costs are inherent in the logic of a commodity market: commodities, by definition, are products that are substitutable for each other across the market, so price becomes the defining competitive characteristic.
You can see how this quickly becomes a race to the bottom: if you believe that there is basically no difference between one pork chop and another, all that matters is how cheaply and at what volume you can produce. In that case, product quality beyond attaining a given USDA grade is ultimately beside the point, as are other otherwise desirable attributes such as animal and employee welfare.
You can see this insidious logic of commoditization on every page of meat industry publications: the ads, the articles, every word is relentlessly focused on exactly this kind of high-volume production of a basically interchangeable product at minimal cost. Quality is definitely an afterthought. Viewing meat as a commodity also leads to a certain cynicism about the product: if you believe there is no substantive difference between products, branding and marketing become even more important – thus the ads from additive formulators promising to work with you to produce food additives that will comply with your labeling requirements. In other words, they’ll find a formulation that will let you put whatever you want to on your label: natural, organic, nitrate free, gluten free, whatever. Again, in a certain way there’s nothing wrong with this – except that it’s a cynical abuse of consumer confidence, finding a way to comply with the letter of labeling regulations while violating the spirit.
The above is not exactly breaking new ground: others have written quite a lot about the downsides of the commodity-production model for meat. So why is it still the dominant model? Because that’s how most people continue to think about meat: as a commodity that you should buy based on price – a pork chop is a pork chop, and more pork chops for less money is always better. As long as this is the dominant way of thinking about meat among consumers, it will be the dominant production model. It’s the only way to satisfy the demand.
My experience, however, suggests, that this is the wrong way to look at meat. One pork chop is not interchangeable for another. In fact, those of you who know me know that that’s what brought me to this business – finding that meat from local pastured producers was a completely different product from the meat available in the grocery. Yes, it was more expensive – sometimes more than twice as expensive – but it was certainly more than twice as good. I made the conceptual shift from thinking about meat as an interchangeable commodity to thinking about it as a differentiated product – something in which the specific attributes mattered to me. In other words, that more expensive pork was worth more because it was better. Revolutionary concept, I know. It meant that I ate less meat, but that the meat I ate was much, much better.
I’d ask everybody who’s hung with me so far to do the same: stop thinking of meat as a commodity, and start thinking of it as a product that matters – you will eat less meat, but you will eat much better. That’s how you escape the logic of commoditization.
So as we start the new year, that’s my big-picture azimuth check. This is why we’re here, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing. Less meat, but better meat.