Lark—a small Capitol Hill restaurant known for serving artisanal meats, costly cheeses, and locally sourced grains and produce—has been targeted by the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN), a vegan animal-rights organization, for including foie gras on its menu. NARN's shouting-and-pamphleting sidewalk protests against the liver—which comes from geese or ducks fattened by force-feeding—are in their fourth week. Lark executive chef/owner John Sundstrom says he will not stop serving foie gras: "They say they're not giving up, and we're not going to cave in to them."
Jenn Kaplan, a board officer for NARN, told The Stranger that while the group "would love to see Seattle become a vegan city, we realize that that's probably not going to happen anytime soon, and we're going to take pragmatic steps along the road to decrease cruelty as much as possible." Although Kaplan acknowledged that NARN's decision to target Lark for protests was somewhat "arbitrary," she added, "Lark purports to be an ethical restaurant, one that takes the issues of sustainability and local [sourcing] very seriously."
But while NARN protesters have been making a stink about Lark's use of foie gras—foie gras from a California company called Sonoma Foie Gras that, according to its website, "utilizes humane techniques in the raising and feeding of ducks"—they've missed a bigger issue right under their noses.
Earlier this year, Sundstrom signed on as a celebrity spokesman for the National Pork Board, a Des Moines, Iowa–based group whose name is synonymous with factory farming and industrial pork production. For his work as one of the Pork Board's five "celebrated chefs," which will include several appearances and an agreement to serve at least two pork dishes on his menu for a year, Sundstrom is receiving $1,000.
The Pork Board—perhaps best known for subjecting America to its ubiquitous "The Other White Meat" campaign—has consistently opposed regulations on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs, aka factory farms), promoted massive agricultural corporations like Hormel Foods and Smithfield Farms, and fought environmental and safety regulations, including proposals to limit the amount of toxic pollutants hog farms can emit.
Sundstrom, in contrast, is well known as a promoter of sustainable, humane farming and ranching practices. Sundstrom disputes the notion that taking money from the Pork Board means shilling for Big Pork. The group, he told The Stranger, "represents anything from Big Pork, which I would not really support... all the way to artisanal pork," like the Carlton Farms, Lilly Pig, and Mangalitsa products on previous Lark menus.
The Ethicurean, a Seattle-based website focused on sustainable, ethical, local food, declared themselves "shocked" to see Sundstrom's name on the list of National Pork Board emissaries—adding sarcastically, "Hope [he] plan[s] to tell the rest of the country not to buy factory pork, either."
Sundstrom compares working with the Pork Board to his experience as executive chef at Earth & Ocean, the restaurant of the downtown branch of the W Hotel, a chain. Noting that the Pork Board has programs that support heritage breeds, he says, "I'm really comfortable working with them."
While it's true that the Pork Board does have a "niche" division dedicated to promoting heritage pork—the website is www.nichepork.org— the group's work on behalf of factory farms, which most small-farm proponents believe displace and destroy smaller producers, belies their "all pork is welcome" claim. (Small Washington State pork producer Heath Putnam, who raises Mangalitsa "wooly pigs" near Spokane, says he has never had any contact with the group.) And a Pork Board spokeswoman—asked why the group chose Sundstrom as one of its celebrity chefs—said only, "he was interested in pork" and "he does a nice job with pork and has pork on the menu."
The spokeswoman said the goal of the celebrity-chef program was to "promote the product of pork. We don't care where [that promotion is] coming from. We want consumers to know what pork is, about how good it is, and nutritious, and useful." Meanwhile, the Pork Board's website features gushing testimonials from previous celebrity chefs, calling pork "versatile so your family won't get bored with the same old dish," "family-friendly," and a meat that "can really stretch your budget." Pork raised with the aid of hormones under factory-farm conditions can be had at bargain prices; heritage pork can cost upward of $30 a pound.
A few current pork- production statistics quickly show that Big Pork is no small matter. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of hog farms in Iowa, which produces a quarter of all United States pork, declined from 64,000 to just 10,000, a trend that has continued. As the big farms have gotten bigger, so has production—according to the New York Times, large farms produced 2,000 percent more pork in 2002 than they did in 1997. That increase in productivity has, predictably, come with a cost: increased air and water pollution from pig-farm "lagoons"—lakes of shit so big you can see them from space—and increased contamination of the pork itself. Last year, more than 40 percent of grocery-store pork tested positive for a bacterium known as C. diff., a potentially deadly bacterial germ.
To change that system, of course, will require efforts from both inside and outside the pork industry itself. To that extent, Sundstrom is right: Small farms can benefit when they have the backing of powerful agricultural interests. On the other hand, the vast majority of the Pork Board's work promotes an agricultural system that is driving small producers out of business. That's the kind of thing animal-rights protesters should focus on—an agricultural system that drives small farmers out of business, pollutes the environment, and is truly cruel to animals. Foie gras is a convenient target—a high-profile product with a controversial recent history. But the real reform needed involves Big Pork and other grocery-store meat monoliths, not seared Sonoma foie gras with caramelized pear and pain d'epice on plates at Lark.