I was, frankly, appalled by the now-controversial Carl’s Jr. advertisement touting the chain’s new all-natural burger. At first, I wasn’t sure whether to be more offended as a sustainable meat advocate or a woman but, over time, I think I’ve found my way. I suspect we all know the commercial that I’m talking about, but in the extremely unlikely event that you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here. I’m not going to describe it in detail, or talk too much about its odd and unsettling attempts to correlate sex and hamburgers. While I do find the ad offensive to both men and women, let’s try our best to set the inappropriate, coarse, and distasteful elements of this campaign aside, because I’d really like to take a hard look at what Carl’s Jr. is actually trying to sell with this commercial, and what that means within the greater context of the sustainable food movement.
The final line that a scantily clad Charlotte McKinney utters as she bites into her hamburger is this: “nothing between me and my all-natural, juicy, grass-fed beef.” Then, a line reads, “The first all-natural burger in fast food: no antibiotics, no added hormones, no steroids.” After all this time, Carl’s Jr. has decided to take a running leap after the already departed boatload of grass fed meat now being produced in this country.
I say already departing because, the truth is, Carl’s Jr. would never have ventured into the natural foods world were the demand not already high for so-called all-natural and grass-fed meats. In fact, Carl’s Jr. CEO Andy Puzder told USA Today that the decision to serve a grass fed burger wasn’t political (read ethical) at all. In his words, “our objective has never been to tell people what to eat, but to serve them what they want to eat.” Brad Haley, Chief Marketing Officer for Carl’s puts it this way: “we’ve seen a growing demand for ‘cleaner,’ more natural food, particularly among Millenials.”
While some idealists might wish a company like Carl’s Jr. would act on ethical principles alone, the increased demand that led them to pursue grass fed meat indicates a victory for sustainable food. For so long, a goal of the sustainable food movement has been to increase the demand for sustainably produced food in order to increase supply and, therefore, lower costs. Ideally, these lower costs would correspond with, and be aided by, a shift in the focus of government agriculture subsidies away from corn and soy. The lower cost would drive an even higher demand for sustainable food, and make such products more widely available, eventually reaching, we would hope, into food deserts and in-need communities throughout the country.
If we set aside confusion about terms like ‘sustainable,’ ‘all-natural,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘grass-fed’ just for a moment, we can see that an increased demand for grass-fed beef- even in the name of fast food- would be a good thing if it spurred American producers toward better practices. And this is where the first problem arises because, as it turns out, the grass fed, all-natural beef that Carl’s is using comes from Australia. CEO Haley explains that, “even though our loyalty to American ranchers is strong, rather than meet the shortfall with conventionally raised beef from cattle treated with growth hormones and antibiotics, we decided to take this opportunity to start sourcing more truly grass fed steak.”
It’s really important, this fact about the Australian grass fed beef, because it’s indicative of a larger set of misunderstandings about truly healthy, sustainable food systems. To put it simply, Carl’s Jr. wants all the cache of in vogue terminology like ‘grass-fed’ and ‘all-natural’ without actually contributing to the growth of a healthier American food system. Not to mention that, as Kristen Wartman wrote for the Huffington Post in February, “all told, you’re consuming about 60 ingredients in that ‘all-natural’ burger.” After all, what’s sustainable about shipping millions of pounds of meat overseas and ignoring the problems American animal husbandry practices have created at home? And what’s all-natural about including over 60 ingredients in a hamburger?
Now we can go back to those terms we set aside awhile back because it would seem that much of the Carl’s Jr. ad, and indeed much of the food industry in general, is working to appropriate and abuse catch words for target-based ad campaigns. Words like ‘grass fed,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘all-natural’ have little to no specific parameters of use and, while they appear to be indicators of health and real sustainability, they aren’t necessarily so. The real issue with the Carl’s Jr. all-natural burger ad isn’t the misogyny or the cheering of an antibiotic and steroid free product that should never have become the norm in the first place. It’s the careful use of a new natural food rhetoric, designed to convince millenials in particular that they are participating in a healthier, more natural, more sustainable system with the purchase of a Carl’s Jr. all-natural burger.
The truth is that real quality and sustainability are never the hallmarks of a corporate fast food franchise. These businesses may use the terms, but their buying and processing practices don’t reflect what those terms are supposed to connote. When Carl’s Jr. becomes a buyer in the American market, puts pressure on suppliers to use good practices, and really gets behind sustainability and health rather than catch phrases like grass-fed, then I’ll buy their burger. Unfortunately, I think we might see cows fly before that happens.