There is no shortage of publicity from dining services about its efforts to improve the environmental footprint of the food Princeton students consume daily. If you’ve been in any of the dining halls in the past year, you’ve probably noticed posters, table placards, and napkin holders extolling virtues of the University’s emphasis on locally sourced products and encouraging students to “eat less red meat, less often.” Terms like “grass fed,” “organic,” and “local” are thrown around with little delineation—an array of various “good” qualities. These efforts are commendable, but it is worth taking a closer look at where exactly our food comes from. We took a dive into the sourcing of three products in Princeton’s dining halls to gain insight into environmental impacts and ethical standards of food we eat each day. We did this research in May of 2018, so below statements reflect University sourcing practices at that time. Some sourcing may have changed in the interim, most notably the peanut butter, which now comes from a local supplier.
As of May 2018, peanut butter served in the dining halls was Skippy brand and sourced through the University’s primary national food distributor, US Foods. Skippy, a Unilever subsidiary, is produced in a large facility in Arkansas, 1,195 miles away from Princeton. In its products, Skippy uses domestically grown peanuts, which primarily come from the southeastern United States. As a stabilizer, Skippy uses hydrogenated soybean, cottonseed, and rapeseed oils. Soybean and cottonseed oil are predominantly produced in the States, while rapeseed, commercially known as canola, generally comes from Canada.
Life cycle analysis (LCA), which quantifies the environmental impact of a product from all aspects of its production and consumption, suggests peanut butter production, including transport to the consumer and disposal, leads to release of 1.5- 2.6kg of CO2 per kilogram of product. For reference, combusting one gallon of gasoline releases approximately 9kg of CO2. Only a small portion of these greenhouse gas emissions are released during transportation from producer to the consumer. In contrast to many of its competitors, Skippy does not use palm oil as a stabilizer in its peanut butter. Palm oil is frequently used in peanut butters due to its low cost in comparison to other saturated fats. Global demand for palm oil has driven intensive cultivation of oil palms in Southeast Asia where now, in Indonesia and Malaysia especially, the large, monoculture plantations on which oil palms are grown have led to extensive deforestation and environmental degradation.
Princeton dining halls source their eggs from Kreider Farms, a large-scale dairy and egg farm in Pennsylvania, 114 miles away from the University. LCA shows that eggs have an approximate carbon footprint of 4.83kg CO2 per kilogram of eggs. 65 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from feed production, 22 percent from farm operations, and approximately 5-7 percent from transportation. Kreider Farms, which currently owns around six million egg-laying chickens, has come under attack for alleged animal welfare abuses. In 2012, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released video footage depicting very poor conditions in Kreider’s facilities, showing live chickens living among decaying carcasses and maimed by or trapped in cages or feeding equipment. Floors of the cages were caked with feces and swarming with flies. Unsanitary conditions have public health implications as well, as they increase likelihood of foodborne illness. Kreider Farms denied authenticity of the videos, and although the HSUS provided footage and images of employees wearing uniforms with Kreider Farms logos, Kreider Farms maintained the videos were fabricated.
Kreider Farms has since publicly stated that it is committed to humane conditions for its animals and has invested in facilities that provide a higher quality of life. Its “Noah’s Pride” line of eggs, which are those served in University dining halls, are laid by chickens housed in an American Humane-certified cage-free facility. As is standard for most cage-free eggs, the egg-laying chickens are housed indoors on multiple tiers at high density.
American Humane certification claims to ensure a basic set of animal welfare standards have been met in the facility and for cage-free egg-laying chickens. The certification requires producers to provide chickens with 1.5 square feet of living space and access to nesting and bathing areas, and prohibits slaughter without stunning and precludes excessively high mortality rates. Beak trimming, a procedure in which the beak of the chicken is removed to prevent aggressive behavior or cannibalism, is permitted under this certification. Animal rights groups have called this procedure cruel and unethical, and it has been banned in several countries. Selective breeding over the course of many decades has led to separate breeds of chicken for meat and egg production. Standard industry practice is to kill male chicks born to egg-laying hens almost immediately after birth, often by maceration. Egg-laying hens themselves are considered “spent” when their egg production falls off, usually around one to two years, at which point the hens are slaughtered.
While Consumer Reports has called the label “somewhat meaningful,” animal welfare groups have criticized American Humane and called their certification a “rubber stamp” that is insufficient in ensuring welfare of animals and is deceptive to consumers, the latter of which may interpret the label as indicating a higher quality of life for chickens than is actually provided.
Princeton sources much of its red meat from two Trenton-based suppliers, City Beef and Dutch’s Meats, in addition to some meat from its national supplier, US Foods. We reached out to the two Trenton distributors to discuss where they source the meat they sell to the University.
Jim Nelson, owner of City Beef, provided information on their sourcing. As a smaller distributor, City Beef usually does not deal directly with meat processors or slaughterhouses, but instead buys from larger, regional distributors, who in turn buy from major national processors. While some of City Beef ’s products come from local farms and processors, much of the red meat they sell comes from National and from IBP, a Tyson subsidiary. Much of the pork City Beef provides to the University comes from Leidy’s Farms, a Pennsylvania processor that is located 57 miles from the University. Leidy’s is American Humane Certified, which, for pork as for chickens, ensures a baseline standard of treatment for animals but does not guarantee a high quality of life. In pork farms with this certification, nursing mothers can be confined to cages that limit mobility, and American Humane’s space requirements are equivalent to industry norms. Beef supplier IBP (and other large producers) typically do not even meet this minimal baseline standard for animal welfare, and instead are only bound by Federal law, which does not impose significant space requirements for animals. Industry practices common to large-scale producers like National and IBP include gestation crates (which restrict pregnant sows for months at a time from all movement and lead to muscle and bone degradation) and tail docking (where a pig’s tail is clipped without anesthesia). Gestation crates are illegal in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Sweden, but dominate in United States pork production.
City Beef also provides blended meat for the University’s new “blended beef burgers,” which contain 30 percent mushroom by weight. While the University advertises purchasing meat for these blended burgers from a local small business, beef for this blend in fact is imported from overseas before being ground at City Beef ’s facility in Trenton with locally sourced mushrooms. City Beef requested that the country of origin for this beef not be printed for proprietary reasons, but the product is shipped over seven thousand miles before it reaches campus. Moreover, City Beef has developed this product in line with University specifications, which require beef to be Halal and grass-fed. Mr. Nelson of City Beef stated that it is this requirement that drove a decision to import from overseas, citing difficulties in finding a United States supplier that met those specifications.
When contacted by phone, an employee at Dutch’s Meats, the other Trenton supplier used by the University, indicated that their sourcing practices are very similar to those at City Beef—that most of the meat is sourced through large regional distributors from major national brands like IBP and Tyson, and that a minority of their meat comes from local producers. Another employee at Dutch’s later followed up with me by phone and requested we “throw away” this previously-provided information. Despite repeated attempts from our staff, the Dutch’s employee responsible for the Princeton account could not be reached to clarify where Dutch’s sources their products.
LCA for beef production including transportation shows that greenhouse gas emissions amount to about 22-27kg of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of beef, with grass-fed and grain-finished beef both falling within this range. In fact, CO2 is a secondary contributor to the greenhouse gas footprint of beef—methane released during the cow’s digestion is responsible for 70 percent, as methane has global warming potential twenty-five times higher than CO2. Transportation has a relatively minor contribution to this effect, responsible for less than 5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions, including even beef shipped overseas. Environmental benefits of grass-fed beef are unclear. Although it reduces the energy requirements for cattle feed by removing cost of grain production, and it can rely on grasses and non-arable land otherwise not useful for human food production, farming grass-fed beef sometimes entails clearing land to create pastures. Land clearing, especially when of forested areas, has a very high environmental footprint as the process of burning not only releases CO2 but eliminates an important means for carbon sequestration.
Industrialized, large-scale food producers can sell at price points significantly below those of smaller, local producers, despite growing interest in local sourcing. Economies of scale greatly favor mass production, and logistical innovations have reduced the monetary but not necessarily the ecological cost of food transport over long distances. Therein, market forces create incentives for vendors and producers to be non-transparent or even deceptive about where and how they source their product; they can try to undercut competition and entice customers with claims of sustainability and ethics. Since food products are rarely sold directly from producer to consumer, instead passing first through several layers of middlemen, it becomes hard for a consumer to understand where their food originates. While transportation looms large in our day-today talk about food sustainability, in truth transport distance is only one of several factors that impact greenhouse gas emissions of food production; often its contribution is relatively minor. Compared to peanut butter and eggs, environmental costs of meat will be high even in the best case. Beef in particular, due to its large unit size and high capital cost, is difficult to source locally and rewards large, complicated supply chains, with all of their baggage.
These problems of large-scale food production have led many to seek more ethical, sustainable options. Some go vegetarian or vegan in view of considerable environmental impact of animal products, especially meat. There is also growing interest in buying local products in an effort to reduce a now huge ecological footprint of industrial production. Such efforts, however laudable, cannot solve the problems. Aside from the fact that local products, as discussed above, hardly escape the myriad complications associated with our food supply chain, they are limited by a classed accessibility. Fresh, local food can be expensive, and is often only readily available to a privileged few. This exclusive nature of access to such food poses a danger of mis-assigning blame for the very problems of food production that markets for hyper-local and fresh food purportedly seek to avoid. A moralizing focus on buying the “right” foods reduces a complex issue to a matter of individual choice, entertaining the idea that widespread change can be brought about by personal shopping habits. Of course, problems with our food supply chain are not individual nor wholly on the consumption side, but are systemic, with fault laying most heavily on the production side. Change, then, must come from pressure on producers rather than just on consumers to change.
Princeton Dining Services’ food sourcing, therefore, can be better, and indeed should be. But considering deeper, ingrained complications of food production, sustainable sourcing is more than just a public relations campaign carried out on napkin holders, or a matter of personal choice and habits. In fact, it’s a political problem that requires structural solutions.