When meat is sourced from “independent family farms,” what does that really mean?


by Jessica Fu, The Counter



A coalition of sustainable farming groups is calling on FTC to regulate use of the term, which it calls deceptive to customers and harmful to “truly independent farmers.”


On some of Cargill’s customer-facing websites, the term “independent family farmer” makes an appearance before the company’s own name does.


If you’re familiar with the company, this should come as no great surprise. For years, the meat processing giant has made numerous efforts to underscore the role that its contract growers play in the supply chain, often to a point of minimizing its own involvement. Online, you’re encouraged to “meet the family farmers” that raise its poultry. In a 2015 ad, the company—without naming itself—promoted one of its poultry brands as produced by “independent turkey farms.” And two years ago, the company went so far as to launch a line of limited-edition, “blockchain-based” turkeys, which allowed consumers to trace birds back to their exact farm of origin. The implication, apparently, is that the poultry supply chain takes a simple path from producer to plate, with Cargill playing an all-but-negligible role in the process.


Unsurprisingly, Cargill’s heavy marketing emphasis on its “independent farmers” has long rankled anti-monopoly advocates. They argue that it misleads eaters, who may believe that they’re buying poultry directly from producers. They argue that it eats away at the market for food that was actually produced without involvement of the country’s largest meat packers. And now, a coalition of consumer interest groups is going one step further to argue that the use of such language is a form of false advertising that violates federal law.


Cargill argues that the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved its use of claims like “by independent farmers” on product labeling. That raises a thornier question: How do different federal agencies define what constitutes an “independent family farm”?


Like most processors, Cargill sources poultry from farmers through contract growing arrangements. In this set-up, companies like Cargill dictate almost all terms of production—from the chicks that growers raise to the feed that birds eat to the processing and sale of finished products. The company even has the power to mandate costly equipment and housing upgrades that can trap farmers in cycles of debt. Because of this lopsided arrangement, the Small Business Administration (SBA) in 2018 went so far as to deem that contract growers be treated as subsidiaries, rather than independent farming operations, when it came to federal lending decisions.


As such, argues the coalition led by Family Farm Action Alliance, an organization that advocates against consolidation in agriculture, Cargill’s continued use of the term “independent farms” in its advertisements and packaging amounts to “unlawful consumer deception.” In November, the groups filed a formal petition to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the agency that oversees consumer protection and antitrust, calling on regulators to prohibit the company from using the term in its marketing going forward.


“Consumers are being deceived,” said Joe Maxwell, president of Family Farm Action Alliance. According to him, when Cargill claims its poultry is sourced from independent farmers, it’s “filling up a market that should have been available to true independent family farmers.”


Cargill disputes this characterization. In an email, media relations director Daniel Sullivan wrote...


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