The Bon Appetit Management Company hopes it has grown large enough to demand change from the ranchers and farmers it buys from.
As broken as much of our modern industrial food system is, consumers still wield the ultimate power: We can vote with our forks. Eventually, the message gets across. Witness the growth of all things organic and the rarity of rBGH (an artificial growth hormone) in milk production today. No laws decreed that farmers produce more organic food, but thanks to consumer demand, it's the fastest growing segment of the grocery industry. No laws forbade farmers from administering rBGH to cows. Shoppers just wouldn't buy the stuff.
Fedele Bauccio, CEO and co-founder of Bon Appétit Management Company, a food service group that operates more than 400 kitchens at colleges, museums, corporations, and other institutions in 31 states, wields a mighty big fork -- $350 million in food purchases a year.
So it was good news to anyone who cares about the welfare of farm animals when Bon Appétit announced last week that it had implemented the most sweeping anti-cruelty policy in the food service industry. By 2015, all of the pork the company buys will come from farmers who do not confine their sows in two-by-seven-foot gestation crates. Similarly, all of its "liquid" eggs that come to its kitchens pre-cracked and in containers will be from cage-free hens, as its in-shell eggs do now. Veal from crated calves will disappear from Bon Appétit menus, as will the small amount of foie gras it serves. "We've said, 'That's it. No more. It's over,'" Bauccio said in an interview.
This will have a huge impact. The company buys 3,000,000 pounds of pork a year and 11 million pre-cracked eggs.
"It's not easy to do," Bauccio said. "But I think that if we take a stand, we're big enough now and have enough purchasing power that the big producers will start to step up. It's time."
Bauccio said that his major problem has been to convince the large producers his company must deal with to get the volume of meat and eggs it needs to abandon their industrial ways. Two thirds of the pork sold in this country comes from sows that are confined for virtually all of their short lives. The liquid egg market is dominated by a few large companies.
Even when Bauccio puts hard cash on the table, some factory farmers are reluctant to change, because they want to avoid pressure from their peers who are fighting to maintain the highly profitable status quo. He even offered one conventional producer a guarantee that he would buy every pig raised humanely and without subtherapeutic antibiotics. That producer did not so much as respond to his overture.
"But we're going to get it done," Bauccio said. "Probably through lots of small, regional ranchers and farmers."
A few years ago, I witnessed the domino effect of Bauccio's big fork in the Florida tomato industry. Because of heinous labor abuses in the fields, Bon Appétit told the state's growers that it would simply stop buying Florida tomatoes until it could find a producer whose labor practices were transparently fair. A couple of smaller farmers came forward.
Not wanting to be put at a competitive disadvantage, particularly on socially aware college campuses, Bon Appétit's parent company, Compass Group, and its huge competitors -- Aramark and Sodexo -- insisted on the same standards. Seeing an opportunity, a few major producers changed their farming practices. Finally, not wanting to be shut out, virtually every significant grower came aboard. An entire industry was transformed.
If it can happen to a Florida tomato, it can happen to a chicken on a big farm in Iowa or a hog in North Carolina. And it can put humanely raised meat and eggs within reach of every consumer.