- Washington Post
How Meat and Milk Companies Are Racing to Ease Your Climate Guilt
11:57 JST, January 23, 2024
At Hopdoddy Burger Bar near the University of Florida campus in Gainesville recently, Van Morrison crooned “na na, Natalia” and the Sauce Bar was fully stocked. The menu advertised the usual gluten-free and vegan options, as well as something more unusual: beef purporting to “save the planet, one bite at a time.”
The Austin-based chain buys the meat from ranchers who use eco-friendly agricultural techniques. The burgers – about $4 more expensive than the traditional ones – are designed to appeal to a fast growing, desirable demographic of climate-conscious omnivores. But the extent to which such premium-priced beef patties are helping cool the earth is hotly disputed.
“We want to change the narrative that eating meat is bad for the planet, or that eating plant-based is better,” said Chad Edwards, the on-duty manager, explaining the company’s “just eat a Hopdoddy burger” solution to climate change.
The stakes, or perhaps steaks, of this effort to rewrite the science-backed narrative that cows are a climate menace are bigger than this 46-restaurant chain. The company is at the vanguard of a contentious push by meat and dairy industries trying to rebrand as climate solutions. The companies claim they can neutralize the climate impact of cows by changing their diets, overhauling how their manure is handled, and transitioning to farming and grazing practices that equip soil to capture carbon.
While innovations on the farm do lessen the emissions generated in the process of making some burgers and milk, audacious claims by some companies about carbon neutrality and climate friendliness often rely on disputed carbon accounting tactics and data that can’t be verified.
Conglomerates like McDonald’s, Tyson Foods and Nestlé have vowed to wipe out their carbon footprints, while giving little indication they intend to substantially shrink their sales of burgers, steaks and dairy. And major industry players are also deeply embedded in writing the rules that governments will use to gauge climate claims.
“Eating a hamburger is always the worst choice for the climate – even a Hopdoddy burger – full stop,” said Scott Faber, who heads government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which tracks the climate impact of food production. “What is shocking is that regulators are just standing by while companies are making these misleading claims. There is no such thing as a climate-friendly hamburger.”
The Environmental Working Group is less concerned with Hopdoddy than a much bigger player in the meat world: Tyson Foods. The food giant has launched a brand called Brazen Beef, which is selling steaks and other cuts of meat marketed as “climate friendly.” The environmental organization objected to that label in a petition with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing the amount of emissions Tyson’s reduced is minuscule and the company is not publicly disclosing the underlying data.
A USDA spokesperson said in email that the agency is weighing the petition, but noted that the department “does not have authority for on-farm oversight that would enable the agency to verify these types of labeling claims.” The agency has approved Brazen Beef for a “climate friendly” claim after the company said its cattle emissions are 10 percent below the industry average, citing a carbon accounting auditor hired by Tyson, according to the company.
“We’re seeing a strong demand for products that have reduced [greenhouse gas] emissions to meet consumer demand and help our supply chain partners satisfy their own carbon commitments,” a Tyson statement said.
The company did not respond to allegations that their claims are misleading.
Faber said that while companies deserve credit for promoting farming methods that create fewer emissions, they are giving consumers the impression that the burgers are harmless when the science says otherwise.
“The data available right now is too poor to be able to support the kind of claims these companies are making,” Faber said.
Meat companies are trying to persuade consumers that eating the right kind of beef can be almost as good for curbing climate change – maybe even better – than swapping it for an Impossible Burger or the latest dinner plate innovation, lab-cultivated meat. The claims are fortified with meat industry-funded studies. The industry argument is contested by many prominent scientists and by the United Nations climate change office, which credits Impossible Burgers with generating 89 percent fewer emissions than a traditional beef patty.
At a May conference in Arlington, Va., organized by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group, meat and dairy industry officials laid out a road map for persuading consumers that their worries about the impact of industrial cattle operations are driven by radical advocacy groups.
“You need to understand that offense wins and defense loses in public relations and in advocacy,” Jack Hubbard, executive director of an industry-aligned group called Center for the Environment and Welfare, told the audience, according to presentation excerpts. “If you are having their debate and saying ‘I’m not that bad,’ they are controlling the narrative.”
Meat and dairy companies find themselves in a difficult place as consumers demand more climate-friendly products, investors more closely scrutinize climate risk and regulators require companies to be more transparent about emissions.
A new law in California aimed at fighting corporate “greenwashing” requires companies that claim their products are carbon neutral or otherwise climate friendly detail the science used. Under that law, companies that purchase carbon offsets to make their emissions disappear on paper must identify exactly where those credits were generated. The offsets work like indulgences, with companies claiming they have canceled out some emissions after funding projects like forest preservation or installation of carbon capture machines elsewhere.
Under another new California law, companies also must disclose the emissions created throughout their supply chains, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is working on a similar requirement.
It all has big food companies rushing to show progress in cutting emissions, particularly after so many of them promised to zero out their net release of greenhouse gases – known as going “carbon neutral” – by 2050 or earlier, in alignment with the Paris agreement on global warming. In the backdrop is a contentious debate over how those companies should calculate their carbon footprints.
The fight has shifted to an obscure independent organization called the GHG Protocol, a group made up of corporations, scientists and environmental groups that writes accounting rules for greenhouse gas emissions that will guide what climate claims companies can make under new state laws.
Among the companies involved in determining when and how farming and harvesting methods can be used to erase the emissions impact of products like hamburgers and dairy are McDonald’s, Nestlé and the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, to which meat giants Tyson Foods and Cargill belong.
The deliberations of the GHG Protocol, which is managed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, are kept confidential. But discord spilled into public in the fall, following its publication of draft guidelines for farm and forestry emissions. Dozens of environmental groups and academics say the rules as proposed would allow companies to declare climate-unfriendly products such as lumber, paper, beef and milk carbon neutral – or even carbon negative – by making modest land use adjustments that don’t truly mitigate the emissions of those products.
“The process was incrementally eroded until it became fully captured by the companies who want to get credit for addressing climate change without changing what they are doing,” said William Moomaw, a professor emeritus of environmental policy at Tufts University.
Officials at the GHG Protocol say the organization is weighing the concerns.
“We take stakeholders’ comments seriously and the team is actively working to ensure the final draft best addresses the issues that have been raised,” said Craig Hanson, managing director of programs at the World Resources Institute.
As that process lumbers forward, some companies aren’t waiting to unveil climate-friendly labels. Among them is a company called Neutral, launched in Portland, Ore., by a small group of entrepreneurs.
Neutral’s suppliers engage techniques generally applauded by climate activists. At one farm, a blend of seaweed is mixed into cow feed to reduce emissions from belches. Manure is separated before flowing into a waste lagoon, so the solids can be dried for compost, reducing manure emissions by tens of thousands of metric tons. The diet of each animal is tracked to estimate daily carbon dioxide emissions.
“Neutral funds a portion of these projects,” said Robert Kircher, an owner of the Dayton, Ore., farm. “They come out and look at our farm and where we can improve and where we can mitigate carbon.”
Neutral claims to be “the first carbon neutral foods company in the United States.” The buzzy start-up, which launched in 2021, has attracted financing from celebrity investors including Bill Gates, Mark Cuban and LeBron James. Its products are sold at Whole Foods and Target.
Yet if consumers have the impression that a glass of Neutral milk is harmless from a climate perspective, they are mistaken, said Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University. “A glass of their milk still creates multiple times more emissions than a glass of soy or oat milk,” he said.
Neutral purchases offset credits to mitigate about 30 percent of the emissions its suppliers create – the emissions remaining even after farms shift to more eco-friendly agriculture. Those credits come from animal farms outside its supplier network that trap the methane gas from manure and convert it to energy. There are major disagreements among experts about how to value those offsets.
While climate activists want to see the rest of the agriculture industry embrace the kind of projects Neutral has on its farms, they worry its introduction of carbon-neutral branding invites other companies to make such claims at a time regulators are ill equipped to assess them. Regulators in the European Union have grown so concerned by consumer confusion that starting in 2026 the E.U. will no longer allow a company using offsets – as Neutral does – to brand their product carbon neutral.
Neutral CEO Marcus Lovell Smith said the branding is backed by full disclosure of the methods the company uses to erase emissions. “Consumers are saying, ‘There is so much I cannot believe out there, just be real and show me what you are doing,’” he said. “That is all we are trying to do.”
Hopdoddy is navigating similar terrain. CEO Jeff Chandler says it was less than a year ago that the company could not find enough suppliers of “regenerative” meat – the term for farming that aims to restore the health of the land and the atmosphere – to fill its burger orders. Now, Hopdoddy is moving on to finding suppliers of regeneratively raised grain for its buns. But making climate claims is a fraught business.
“We always want to be truthful in what we say and avoid any greenwashing,” he said. “It is a big evil in our industry. We cannot over promise. But all of the claims we have made, we can back up.”
Still, several customers feasting on the burgers in Gainesville recently were flummoxed about why they would eat “regenerative beef.” The exception was a regular at the Hopdoddy joint, Lakesha Fountain, who said she trusts the restaurant is serving it because it is healthier and higher quality.
Edward Lavagnino, munching truffle fries while awaiting his burger, asked if it meant grass-fed. That moved one of his companions, Joe Nero, to suggest Googling it.
“It sounds to me like beef that regenerates, and that sounds a little Halloweenish,” said Bob Anderson, of Clermont, Fla.
Another customer, asked by a reporter if they purchased a regenerative beef burger, responded: “No, I got the one with bacon.”
The climate-friendly branded burger may or may not take off with diners. But in Gainesville, the experiment was cut short. Days after The Post stopped by, Hopdoddy shuttered the location.
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