Recently I had a discussion with some friends about In ‘N’ Out. Since moving to California, it’s really struck me how much people freakin’ love that place! Personally, I haven’t had In ‘N’ Out since transitioning to a more environmentally and ethically conscious approach to eating, because, well, I assumed it didn’t fit the bill.
When I mentioned my concerns about In ‘N’ Out not sourcing humane beef, one friend said, “but they pride themselves on fresh, local ingredients.” So of course, my curiosity peaked, I thought I’d do some digging around and see if I perhaps I’ve been missing out on the burger obsession for no good reason!
First stop? In ‘N’ Out’s website. On the main site I was happy to see an entire page devoted to food quality. However, reading through, I was almost instantly disappointed.
“We have always made every one of our hamburger patties ourselves using only whole chucks from premium cattle selected especially for In-N-Out Burger. We pay a premium to purchase fresh, high-quality beef chucks. We individually inspect every single chuck we receive to make sure that it meets our standards. Then our highly skilled, in-house butchers remove the bones. We grind the meat ourselves and make it into patties ourselves. These steps enable us to completely control the patty-making process and be absolutely certain of the quality and freshness of every patty we make. We’ve always made our hamburger patties this way.”
To many people, this paragraph might be enough to say that yes, In ‘N’ Out does care about where its beef comes from and the treatment of the cattle. But to me, this paragraph reads like a bunch of fluff. That’s because terms like “premium cattle,” “high-quality” and “freshness” have nothing to do with how the cattle were raised. In fact, the USDA grading system for beef is based on subjective “quality grades for tenderness, juiciness and flavor; and yield grades for the amount of usable lean meat on the carcass,” not on how humanely the cattle were treated or the quality of nutrition in the meat.
Bottom line: “high quality” does not equal humanely raised.
Not satisfied with the information on In ‘N’ Out’s website, I decided to do a quick Google search. One of the top results was a post on Ecosalon.com titled “Behind The Label: Where In-N-Out’s Beef Really Comes From.” Interesting.
A read through this article revealed that, at least at the time of publishing in 2012, In ‘N’ Out was sourcing its beef from a conventional factory farm in California called Harris Ranch Beef Company. According to the article, “as California’s largest beef producer, Harris Ranch has drawn extensive scrutiny from food activists for its factory farming methods,” and gained the attention of food activist and writer Michael Pollan, who was inspired by the poor conditions to write his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
If you’re skeptical like me, you might be thinking, this sounds bad . . . but also, it’s information from a random blog on the internet, so is it true??
To attempt to get to the bottom of things, I found the corporate customer service number to In ‘N’ Out and gave it a call. I was connected with a very nice customer service rep, and jumped in with the questions.
Me: “Yes, I was just wondering if you could tell me where your beef comes from.”
Rep: “We have multiple vendors, but we do not disclose their names.”
Again, interesting . . .
Me: “Oh okay. Well I was just reading this blog on the internet that said you get some beef from Harris Ranch Beef Company, but the post is from 2012. Can you tell me if you still source from them?”
Rep: “Yes, I believe we do.”
Me: “Okay. And just in general, do you know at all how your beef was raised?”
Rep: “Well, we do follow FDA regulations . . . ”
Some further questioning revealed that In ‘N’ Out does have its own quality control team, and conducts both scheduled and surprise inspections on supplying farms. Sherri, the rep, also insisted (when I asked) that In ‘N’ Out is “committed to humanely raised beef,” yet they have not obtained outside certifications ensuring welfare standards for their beef like Certified Humane.
To me, the presence of an inside quality control team rather than an outside quality control team is not great news. It seems like their interests (finding the farms and production to be following the highest standards) may be self-serving and easily corrupted. But that’s just me.
Finally, since it seems that Harris Ranch is still a primary vendor for In ‘N’ Out, I went ahead and scoped out their website, too. What I found was better than I had expected given the grim picture painted by the “Behind the Label” blog, but still, I’m not completely convinced this is a farm I want to be supporting.
Take, for instance, this paragraph on sustainability:
“Harris Ranch believes raising cattle and environmental stewardship go hand in hand. For us – as well as out ranching partners – the land is not just where we raise our cattle, it’s also where we raise our families. Sustainability means ensuring the land will provide for the next generation by not only focusing on the well being of our livestock, but also by maintaining the ranching environment.”
What does any of that even mean?! It sounds like a pretty way of talking around the point (i.e. what is actually being done to ensure sustainable practices) in order to bring peace of mind to concerned or skeptical consumers.
And then there’s this blurb on feeding:
“Although our cattle spend approximately 80% of their lives grazing on grass, we finish them for about 120 days on a nutritional-balanced diet of corn and other feed grains, plus alfalfa hay, vitamins and minerals. One of the secrets to great beef is meticulous attention to feeding practices. Harris Ranch is one of just a few producers in the country that produces beef exclusively from cattle fed in our own feedlot, Harris Feeding Company. Since corn-fed beef is the most flavorful, tender and juicy beef available, Harris Ranch’s Central California feedlot purchases Midwestern corn by the trainload to serve as the basis for our scientifically formulated rations.”
While I do appreciate that the cattle spend 80% of their lives “grazing on grass,” I’d like to point out that “grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” are not necessarily the same thing. That is, simply eating grass is not the same thing as being free to roam a pasture.
Admittedly, Harris Ranch is still a feedlot.
What’s more, grass fed beef loses some of its nutritional benefits (including higher levels of omega 3s and lower total fat) when it is grain finished (read more about grass fed vs. grain fed beef here).
*Side note: “Pasture-raised” and “grass fed” are not regulated terms, and can be used to describe meats and other animal products that didn’t have much access to the outdoors at all. So in a perfect world, it is best to ask the farmer directly how the animals were raised.*
The bottom line here is that it does appear that In ‘N’ Out sources at least some of its beef from conventional feedlots. And that’s just beef! There is no mention of where their cheese or milk (for those famous milkshakes) comes from, but I’m betting it’s from conventional dairy as well.
While I might eat conventional beef on very rare occasions, I have no intention of getting hooked on a restaurant I’ve never really eaten at before – just because it’s popular in the area – when said restaurant serves conventional beef. To me, this is one of the great benefits of moving across the country. I had a great chance to start fresh, including with my restaurant choices!
Regardless, we all have the opportunity to be more critical of the places we choose to eat. Food, like most other things in our economy, is produced according to demand. I’m simply voting with my dollar by choosing other, more ethical restaurants, instead.
I’d love to hear from you! Are you working to be a more conscious consumer? Leave me a comment below!
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