Hannah Vs. Anthony Bourdain Vs. Cargill

There’s an interesting back and forth going on between Hannah Hayes and Anthony Bourdain regarding the agri-business giant Cargill.

The issue started off in Anthony Bourdains book Medium Raw, where he takes the executives of Cargill to task for their approach to managing a large portion of the nation’s and the world’s beef supply. How he takes them to task is done in the standard Bourdain modus operandi, by suggesting that Cargill’s executives should have their nuts wired to a car battery while they’re fed the sweepings from the bottom of a monkey cage. I’m paraphrasing here, but only just a bit.

Ms. Hayes, who happens to food blog at Kitchen Oddity, also happens to be the daughter of one a Cargill executive. She was none to pleased with Mr. Bourdain’s suggestion, and said so in a piece at VOX.

I’m a daughter of Cargill’s top management. My father is in charge of global operations for the “evil empire” of food.
I’m sure when you were writing this chapter, “Meat,” you didn’t picture the families of any of the people you want, let me get this right, “indicted, convicted and packed off to jail” for “criminal mediocrity.” Even if you did, you probably pictured my parents closer resembling Richard and Kathy Hilton than Clark and Ellen Griswold. So if I may, I’d like to take this chance to tell you all of the other things about my family you probably didn’t think about before you wrote such downright ornery things about my daddy…

What follow’s is a day in the life of Ms. Hayes, explaining why her Dad is one super, A-Plus, fellow. She then sums up her piece with the following:

he thing you forgot to mention in your book, but my father never does, is that there are more than 6 billion people on this planet who need to be fed. Many of those people are working class families with very little to spend on food.

There’s so much here to discuss, that it’s difficult for me to pull out just one. Foremost is this idea that Ms. Haye’s Dad represents Cargill, when in fact he’s merely a part of it (albeit it, likely an important one). It’s easy to believe that an Institution such as Cargill is a collection of individuals, but in fact corporations, and the products they create are much, much larger than the work of one man., regardless of how super-swell he might be. I realize that it’s obvious, but I need to say it anyways – Corporations are institutions, and Institutions are not a collection of individuals. That, by definition, would be an oxymoron.

So what kind of company does Ms. Haye’s dad work for? Let’s take a look at their Vision Statement.

Our purpose is to be the global leader in nourishing people.
Our mission is to create distinctive value.
Our approach is to be trustworthy, creative and enterprising
Our measures are engaged employees, satisfied customers, enriched communities and profitable growth.

Note that value and profit are guiding factors here. Sure, they want to feed the world. They want to do so by making as much money as they can. There’s nothing wrong with this, as this is the nature of business. But know that when profit and growth are the means by which one measures success, certain approaches to feeding the world will, by definition, have to be considered in the name of money and expansion.

So while Ms. Hayes talks of her dad and “many of his coworkers … thinking about the effects of antibiotics on livestock, making anaerobic digesters so their plants can be sustainable, and how to use animals as humanely as possible,” what she fails to add to the discussion is the following clause – “…while trying to increase their profit margin.”

Without that clause, she makes her dad and his compatriots sound noble and just. When in reality, they are also trying to make sure that their corporation continues to make (and improve upon) their $2.5 billion in net income.

Let’s make the discussion here, not about Ms. Hayes’ dad trying to “feed the world.” In reality, he’s “trying to feed the world and make a shit-ton of money for the institution he works for.” To argue otherwise is disingenuous.

This brings us to the second aspect, for when a company wants a larger profit margin, they will cut costs in certain areas of production. The ultimate goal for a profit-motivated corporation is to meet the threshold of requirements, but only just. To add any more value would add to cost, and cost means less profit.

What examples do we have of Cargill doing this? For one, they require their meat producers to have their products go through an ammonia treatment in order to do away with E-Coli. It’s cheap, effective, and likely safe. Unfortunately, it also alters the taste of the beef, and leaves us to deal with a certain amount of ammonia as a waste product. But that’s somebody else’s problem, right?

Let’s see here – we have Cargill being sued for sourcing cocoa beans for chocolate from slave labor plantations in Africa. This case was dismissed in 2010, not because the defendants were innocent, but because the charges were brought under the wrong Act, essentially a legal technicality.

Then there’s this – The European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) has filed complaints in the UK against Cargill Cotton and ICT Cotton, calling for an investigation into whether the companies “have contributed substantially to maintaining the use of child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton production”. Isn’t once a misunderstanding, but twice is a pattern?

I could go on here, but quite frankly won’t because this is the sort of news which makes me depressed and angry, two states I would prefer not to be in. My point here is that Cargill and their subsidiaries have been accused of being, and in some cases, have been proven to be, mixed up in some pretty nasty stuff.

Is her father responsible for all of this? Of course not, but where does the buck stop? What won’t Cargill do in order to squeeze out an extra penny or two of profit? And more vexing – who’s ultimately responsible for answering that question?

(For the record, Mr. Bourdain has responded to Hannah’s post with far more diplomacy than one might have thought possible. Give it a read, as he mentions the ammonia processing explicitly.)