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The Problem with Cedar River Farms

October 22, 2018
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Writing a farm blog can be difficult. Livestock is theoretically an endless source of topics, but cows and pigs rarely behave in the tidy, didactic, narrative-friendly manner of the animals in a James Herriot story. (Not that he was making them up, but he had a lifetime of experience as a vet, and I suspect he took a good bit of literary license at times.) Then there are the more abstract matters of food and agricultural policy, which I am informed enough to have opinions about but also informed enough to that many of them could well be wrong. Much easier would be to go after other farms that aren’t doing things right in my view. I don’t do this because farming is hard, situations are specific, and I have a great deal of empathy for anyone who’s sticking it out. I don’t often succeed, but I try to view other people with the same generosity I hope they will extend to me. Given all that, you’d be right to wonder why I’m about to take a hatchet to Cedar River Farms.

The first and biggest reason is that it is neither a farm nor a collection of farms. You cannot visit Cedar River Farms and see a herd of cows out grazing. The brand does have specific age and feeding requirements, so it’s possible there is a feedlot or a particular section of one filled with cattle destined to be packed under the Cedar River label. (Good luck to you if you try to visit that!) Instead of being an actual place or discrete number of places, despite the implication of the name, it is just a brand that aims to provide marginally more consistent beef than the generic stuff in the supermarket cooler.

It is also a subsidiary of JBS, a multinational corporation with a 22% share of the US beef market, as well as a big chunk of both chicken and pork. (Along with the three other biggest packers it is responsible for a staggering 80% of domestic beef. If you buy beef at a supermarket it’s almost certainly from one of the big guys.) JBS has been mired in scandal even as it aggressively expands, and it recently recalled 7,000,000 pounds of beef, packed under not just the Cedar River Farms label, but also Showcase, Grass Run Farms, Kroger, Comner Perfect Choice, Gourmet Burger, and the ominous sounding JBS Generic.

The worst thing about a brand like Cedar River Farms is its relentless duplicity. It’s a farm that’s not a farm. It advertises the quality of its meat, quality that is only decent relative to the even shoddier stuff sold under other labels owned by its parent company. Its beef is produced in a cloud of opacity. It creates an illusion of diversity and choice in a marketplace that provides neither.

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