Meister Cheese’s New Animal Welfare Certification

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

In their efforts to sell to a public increasingly exposed to and repelled by stories of the inhumane treatment of farm animals, meat and dairy companies are fighting back with a kinder, gentler picture of how their animals are raised. Their marketing endeavors run the gamut from from applying product labels like “free-range” and “pasture-raised” to enrolling in certification programs that purportedly monitor and approve the way they treat their animals.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

For the consumer, this barrage of efforts is a mixed blessing. How are you supposed to know the difference between chickens that are “free range” and “cage free” anyway? Relying on certifications doesn’t clear up anything either, unless you know what they mean and who stands behind them. Some certifications are no more than internal industry guidelines, like those offered by the United Egg Producers association and the National Pork Board. Under these programs, the very industries which are accused of abuse do the certifying, which smacks a bit of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Then there are certifications that come from third-party nonprofits, like Animal Welfare Approved and Food Alliance. These have more credibility, since they rely on the judgment of independent outsiders. However, getting familiar with their actual standards requires research, research, research. And then there are programs run by individual companies themselves, like Organic Valley’s Pasture Policy and Chipotle’s Food With Integrity program.

In April, Meister Cheese, a cheesemaker in Southwestern Wisconsin whose biggest customer happens to be Chipotle, jumped into the fray with a version of this last option, an animal welfare certification program that it’s running on its own. It’s called the “A Triple F” program, which stands for “Animal Friendly Family Farms.”

Under its guidelines, Meister is partnering with one of its suppliers, local dairy co-op Scenic Central Milk Producers, to ensure that all the milk that the co-op sends Meister is humanely produced. According to Meister’s CFO, Jeff Jump, animal-friendly practices aren’t anything new for the members of Scenic Central; they’re all small farms for whom humane animal care is a family tradition. The A Triple F program simply recognizes the good work these farmers have already been doing.

The A Triple F program sounds great, but let’s look at it from the standpoint of a skeptical consumer who’s tired of corporate whitewashing about animal welfare. “Humane” and “animal friendly” are pretty general terms. How exactly do the A Triple F guidelines define them? And just as importantly, how do we, the consumers, know that the farms covered by the certification are really following its rules? After all, the advantage of third-party certification programs is that the people auditing and certifying farms are part of an organization whose income doesn’t depend on how much cheese (or milk, or any animal product) they can sell. Thus they have no financial incentive to let farms slide by with inhumane practices.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Meister and Scenic Central, on the other hand, can’t pay the bills unless they hit their sales targets. This doesn’t imply that they aren’t genuinely trying to promote humane treatment; it just means that the possibility of a conflict of interest is one that the consumer has to take seriously.

First things first: For someone who cares about animal welfare, how well do the A Triple F guidelines stand up to scrutiny? Answer: Pretty darn well. Scenic Central’s cows cannot be fed growth hormones, routine antibiotics, or (gulp) parts of other animals. They must be housed on pasture or, when indoors, in barns that are clean, spacious, and well-ventilated. They get to keep most of their bodies, including their tails, intact.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Reassuringly, the A Triple F guidelines are as appealing in practice as they are on paper. Jump, who not only serves as Meister’s financial guru, but is also a working member of the Scenic Central co-op, invited The Heavy Table to his own dairy farm so we could see A Triple F in action. We took at look at his herd of 100 cows. (We also took a gander at a few llamas he keeps on hand to ward off the coyotes, but that’s another story.) We happened to be on the farm on animal care day – that is, the day, once a month, when the vet comes to provide routine medical care for the cows. On this particular animal care day the vet was dehorning some young calves, which is a procedure that virtually all dairy cattle undergo. Calves that keep their horns grow into cows that gore their peers when they get a little too pushy at the water trough, and a gored udder is no joke.

As the vet knelt next to a calf who barely blinked an eye at the sight of her hypodermic needle, she explained the calves’ remarkably docile condition. “I’ve already sedated them, but sedation only gives them a little bit of pain relief. This is a shot of Lidocaine to block the nerves that go up to the horns.” Once the anesthetic takes effect, she will burn the budding horns off with a hot iron. What about after the procedure is over, I ask – do the calves feel any residual pain? “Yes,” she allows, “They do, but we judge from their behavior how bad the pain is. The calves go back to feeding right after the dehorning. That ability to function normally tells us that the pain is not severe.”

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Does the fact that Jump’s dairy uses sedation and anesthetic to combat pain make it more humane than conventional dairies? Per an ABC news report released earlier this year, while 94 percent of dairy farms in the US dehorn their cows, less than 20 percent of them bother to use either sedation or anesthetic during the process. And this is for a procedure that Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted livestock handling specialist, describes in ABC’s report as the most painful medical process to which we subject these animals.

After we’re done with the calves, we move to the barn for the full-grown milking herd. The cows here wander about, some inside the barn, some just outside. I note the conspicuous absence of Holstein cows, those ubiquitous milkers with their jigsaw of black and white spots. Where are the Holsteins? “Well, we have one; she came with a manager we hired a while back,” Jump says. But all the rest are Dutch belts (black with a thick white stripe around the middle) and brown Jerseys. These breeds are not quite as prolific milkers as the Holstein, which is the staple breed for conventional dairies, so why does Jump use them?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

His first reason is all about business: Since their milk will ultimately be used for cheese, Jump wants cows that produce milk with a higher proportion of butterfat and protein than a Holstein. The second reason, says Jump, is that “I’m breeding for a good set of hooves and legs.” That’s a humane consideration; he’s willing to forgo maximum milk production to ensure that his cows have strong bones, which will help prevent lameness, one of the biggest welfare problems at conventional dairies. Hardier cows that are under less milking pressure, like Jump’s, can also expect to have a productive milking life of 12 or 13 years, compared to just three or four in the conventional dairy industry.

Of course, the fact that the cows get to graze pasture, and don’t have to mill around on concrete all the time, helps keep them strong too. Jump notes that his cows can come and go at their leisure, grazing when they want to and taking advantage of the shaded barn when they feel like it. This is probably the part of the A Triple F certification that Jump is most proud of, and the one that he feels does the most to protect the cows’ welfare. However, A Triple F does not require that the cows be 100 percent grass-fed or pastured all the time. He wanted to build some flexibility into the certification to recognize the fact that cows fed solely on grass may have a hard time, especially in the depths of winter, getting all the nutrients they need to maintain their body weight and milking ability. Also, Jump feels that requiring constant outdoor exposure may not be the best thing for cow welfare. “We want to respect the natural behaviors of the animal, and an animal will take cover in a storm.”

Other farms in the Scenic Central co-op, Jump says, look pretty much like his (with the exception of his breeds; he’s one of only a handful of farmers in the co-op who chooses not to use Holsteins). But that leads me to the consumer’s dilemma mentioned earlier. Granted, I can see for myself that Meister and Scenic Central mean business with the A Triple F standards. But how to reassure a consumer who, perhaps, lives too far away to take a jaunt out to the farm and see things for herself? Wouldn’t it be better to participate in one of the third-party nonprofit certification programs that has a rigorous animal welfare component, like Animal Welfare Approved or Food Alliance?

Jump agrees that there are great certification programs out there, but he thinks they are just too complex and detailed to foist on already overworked farmers, and when you trust your farmers, it’s not necessary to go into the level of detail these programs require. “Do you need a hundred pages to tell you not to kick a cow, or not to take a baseball bat to it, or not to cut its tail? I don’t think so,” he says. This respect for the authority and integrity of the farmers in the Scenic Central co-op, along with a desire not to overburden them with extra work, is why Meister decided to come up with its own certification, whose guidelines are a mere two pages long.

Obviously, Meister has confidence in Scenic Central’s farmers. They also keep closely in touch with them during multiple audits every year, which gives Meister an opportunity to reinforce the A Triple F guidelines. The question remains: Why should consumers place that same confidence in Meister itself? Jump is reticent to answer this question, and laments what he sees as the fact that farmers have to defend themselves to the public. We get the sense that he wishes that everyone would trust farmers to know what’s best and do the right thing. But in a world of “free-range” eggs from hens that have never been outdoors, “all-natural” pork from pigs that can’t turn around in their steel breeding stalls, and “no-hormone-added” chicken from birds that can’t legally be fed hormones anyway, is it any wonder that consumers feel that they cannot trust the people who provide their food? It’s still an open question how the consumer can tell that A Triple F is the real deal when no-hormone-added chicken is just a PR stunt.

Fortunately, it’s an open question that Chipotle, Meister’s biggest customer, can help close. The A Triple F certification was actually developed in conjunction with Chipotle’s Pastured Dairy Protocol, a part of its Food With Integrity philosophy. Chipotle has been offering humanely raised versions of pork, chicken, and beef for the better part of a decade, but in 2007 began to extend that commitment to dairy products by offering rBST-free sour cream and cheese. (rBST is a growth hormone given to cattle at conventional dairies to increase their milk production.) According to Doug George, a purchasing manager at Chipotle, the fast food chain then became interested in working with its suppliers to develop pasturing standards for their cows. Since Meister had been an enthusiastic partner on the rBST-free initiative, Chipotle approached Meister in 2009, asking for their help launching the new pasture program. Meister jumped on the opportunity, not merely accepting Chipotle’s proposed protocol, but helping Chipotle refine the guidelines and eventually coming up with its own A Triple F certification, which is, if anything, stricter than Chipotle’s. The clincher for the consumer is that as part of the deal, Chipotle audits Scenic Central farms annually, so there is an independent stamp of approval on Meister’s practices.

Of course, we could pose the same question we asked about Meister and Scenic Central to Chipotle itself: On what basis should the skeptical consumer trust them? The answer is that Chipotle is a household name that has publicly chosen to build its brand on the Food With Integrity platform. If they suddenly started fudging the details, some reporter somewhere would smell a juicy story and Chipotle’s brand equity would go down the toilet. That fact provides the consumer with some security that Chipotle – and its suppliers – won’t slack off in the pursuit of humanely raised animal products. Chipotle openly acknowledges as much on its website: “Food With Integrity is our mission, but we know that at the end of the day, we can’t judge our own integrity. That’s for our customers to decide.”

Driving home from Jump’s farm, this customer has decided that a Chipotle burrito made with Meister cheese is, in fact, a lunch with integrity.

Meister Cheese currently sells its own brand only at its company store in Muscoda, WI and through its online catalog. The rest of its cheese is sold wholesale to supermarket delis and restaurants, or is aggregated with cheese from other processors for retail under the Great Midwest label. Scenic Central Milk Producers is the only one of Meister’s suppliers currently certified under the A Triple F program.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

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