04/03/2024 3:50 PM


The Queen Of Beauty

Belcampo’s Meat Mislabeling Deception Is Not an “Isolated Incident”

Belcampo Meat Co.’s mission to change the way people think about meat has long been part of its brand marketing. Its website features photogenic Instagram videos of happy cows against a backdrop of Northern California’s Mount Shasta, and an impact statement provides data on the company’s regenerative agriculture techniques, where animals graze and feed, working to fertilize and stabilize soil for sustainable reuse. The purported ethos of the nine-year-old ranch, now an Oakland-based corporation that encompasses a 30,000-acre farm in rural Siskiyou County, multiple restaurants and butcher shops, a robust online shopping portal, and a distribution deal with the upscale grocery store Erewhon, is one of mindful and ethical meat consumption that doesn’t harm the planet. The retail outlets are spaces where consumers can get in on the humanely raised, thoughtfully sourced action, spending upwards of $48 per pound for healthier, organic, grass-fed beef and other meats said to come straight from the farm.

But multiple former employees and one current employee allege Belcampo hasn’t been completely honest about its sourcing, and that it’s been mislabeling products for more than a year at its Santa Monica and West Third Street locations. On Sunday, May 23, LA butcher Evan Reiner, a former Belcampo Meat Co. employee, posted an Instagram story to his personal account claiming that Belcampo was mislabeling its meat products, a process that he says spans multiple levels of its corporate structure and has been happening for months.

Reiner, who says he was let go by the company on May 22 following a tense verbal exchange with a maskless customer, posted images and videos showing an array of products, from boxes of whole chickens to vacuum-sealed beef filets and rib racks, being stored for use at the Santa Monica location. (Belcampo declined to answer Eater’s questions about Reiner and why he was let go.) Despite the company’s sustainability-driven branding, Reiner alleges that these products were not sourced from Belcampo or the small list of “approved” partner farms found on the corporate website, but were being passed off as such to customers — and with a high price tag to match.

Reiner’s Instagram story slides show vacuum-sealed USDA choice beef filets (which are corn fed, bought for $10 a pound, then sold for $47.99), whole National Beef rib racks (also corn fed and allegedly produced at factory farms), boxes of Pasturebird chickens (which are not organic), and other non-Belcampo products. The items were to be priced and labeled according to Belcampo’s humanely raised, local, grass-fed criteria, a markup (and quality disparity) that he says was being intentionally hidden from customers. Reiner’s photos and videos are a stark contrast to Belcampo’s claim that it controls every aspect of its supply chain, raises all of its own animals on its own farm, and then sells the meat in its own restaurants and butcher shops. The stunning images came with a clear statement from Reiner himself: “Don’t let [Belcampo] take your money. Don’t let these people lie to you like this.”

Reiner’s claims spread across food and sustainability circles on social media, sparking explainers about the drama and a heavily qualified apology statement in the San Francisco Chronicle from Belcampo co-founder Anya Fernald, who admitted to mislabeling a small number of products for retail sales, but only at the Santa Monica location. Initially, the company called the sourcing problem an “isolated incident” and promised to investigate the extent of the mislabeling in its stores.

However, Reiner and five other sources that have communicated with Eater, including past and present employees as well as two of the companies involved with supplying wholesale meat to Belcampo restaurants and stores, say the issue is deeper than Fernald or Belcampo has admitted. According to the current and former Belcampo employees, intentional product relabeling and a lack of transparency about the source of its products have been open knowledge at the company for months, not just in Santa Monica but also its West Third Street location.

Reps for Belcampo and Anya Fernald declined repeated requests for comment on specific questions raised in this story. Instead, the company sent a general statement to Eater that reads in part: “Outside of the quality of our product, nothing is more important to Belcampo than the trust of our customers. To that end, we have launched a comprehensive audit of purchasing at all Belcampo Restaurant and Butcher Shop locations. We are also reviewing internal issues of policy, training and communications that could have contributed to this issue.” The company also put up a response page on its website, laid out in the style of a FAQ, to address some of the comments coming in from news outlets and customers.

Belcampo Meat Co. in 2014 at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles with a customer interacting with an employee

Belcampo Meat Co. meat case in 2014 at Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles
Elizabeth Daniels

Belcampo employees interviewed by Eater allege that as the company grew in size, reach, and stature, the farm struggled to keep up with demand for online orders, fully stocked retail butcher cases, and high-volume restaurant operations. A partnership to sell meat at Erewhon grocery stores, a deal that began in February 2019, further strained the company’s supply chains, the sources allege, all of which has been made even more difficult during the pandemic. Instead of scaling back, further shrinking its retail operations, or recalibrating when its ranch and supply chain could no longer keep pace, the company switched gears.

This narrative isn’t uncommon: Up-and-coming artisanal food companies and restaurants touting local and seasonal ingredients often struggle with meeting high demand or scaling up. Mast Brothers famously melted down Valrhona in its bean-to-bar chocolate bars; more recently, the famed Washington restaurant Willows Inn admitted that it procured ingredients from Costco and Sysco. Belcampo, under a rapid growth plan, quietly began sourcing from outside distributors to meet demand — all without informing customers publicly of the changes or updating the prices in its meat cases to reflect the lower-cost proteins being sold at stores in Santa Monica and West Third Street, according to Eater’s sources.

On May 26, in an Instagram video, Fernald apologized for the lack of oversight. “What happened in that shop doesn’t touch our mail-order products,” she said, adding that they’re certified by a third party. Fernald said she “struggled to focus on the integrity of the claims and the clarity and transparency” her company has always sought. “It’s been difficult to focus on so many things” in light of the pandemic, she said, though “the issues that surfaced are inexcusable.” In asking for forgiveness, Fernald said that Belcampo was committed to rebuilding consumer trust, stating flatly that there were no longer “externally sourced products in any of the shops.” On May 27, Belcampo released the first version of the response page on its website, saying the sourcing of external products was limited to Santa Monica and claiming that the shop operated with autonomy to purchase several non-Belcampo meats on multiple occasions. The company, which has continued to update its response page since then, attributes the mislabeling to a small percentage of items. The website statement affirmed that anything purchased on its website directly or packaged with third-party certifications indeed came from Belcampo Farms.

“Effective early last week,” reps for Belcampo say in their emailed statement to Eater, “there is no external purchasing at our restaurants and butcher shops.” The company has stated that it is expanding its internal investigation companywide and declined to respond to specific questions as a result. In a follow-up email to Eater, Fernald said: “It’s important to me that we completely understand the issue before we say anything more. Transparency has always been one of our core values, but I want to have all the facts before answering any further questions.”

Meat — its consumption, its sourcing, its impact on the world, and its plant-based alternatives — is a deeply contentious consumer product, with the continued debate spurred on by a warming planet, an increasing push for supply-chain transparency, and more informed consumption across the retail sector. Belcampo represents a new school of U.S. companies that hope to do meat production better, from Idaho-based Snake River Farms raising American wagyu cows to the subscription-based Butcher Box, which sells packages of humanely raised meat. Grass-fed beef labels sit prominently on meat shelves in neighborhood grocery stores and even in Walmart, promising a departure from the grain-fed, factory-farmed beef that Americans have come to expect. Belcampo rose through these ranks over time because of its strong social media messaging, heightened brand awareness, and wholesome rhetoric promoting California-raised livestock.

But the company’s mislabeling allegations could upend the trust it has built with California customers and stymie its expansion into high-end groceries. By obfuscating not only its sourcing but also the quality of its products at a time when consumers care more about making what feels like the right choices (and paying accordingly), Belcampo’s actions, if true, may alienate an important sector of wary meat-eaters who have been told that buying ethical, humane, and healthier proteins is a step toward the better world that the company has long championed. At the very least, loyal customers may wonder if they can trust a market leader in the sustainable beef movement, a looming question that stands to overshadow Belcampo’s previous work as a hyper-sustainable, conscious meat provider.

Fernald, a food event planner, business consultant, and co-founder of Belcampo, has long championed the company’s beginning-to-end approach of raising its own cows, chickens, lamb, and pigs in a humane, sustainable way, processing them in its own slaughterhouses, and then selling the finished products in its own butcher shops and restaurants. She has spent years touting Belcampo’s beef, which accounts for the most significant portion of the company’s revenue, as being both healthier for consumers and a direct reflection of a more balanced, environmentally friendly approach to farming. Conventional beef has long been associated with a massive climate footprint. Belcampo positioned itself as a market leader intent on setting new standards for large-scale sustainable farming while simultaneously selling the benefits to a consumer base eager to feel better about its consumption habits.

Like its co-founder, many of Belcampo’s employees chose to work there because of its positive message and commitment to high-quality, sustainably sourced meat. Reiner started his journey as a butcher with an apprenticeship at Le French Butcher on Third Street in Los Angeles, gaining more experience at Curtis Stone’s butcher shop and fine dining restaurant Gwen in Hollywood before moving to Belcampo’s Downtown LA location at Grand Central Market in 2018. To his knowledge, Reiner says, all of the Downtown location’s meat at that time was sourced directly from the Belcampo farm, an important fact for Reiner, who was drawn to the company specifically because of its farm-to-plate ethos, quality products, and transparent sourcing. In March 2019, Reiner was transferred to the Santa Monica location, where, by August of that year, he was handling ordering for the store on a regular basis. Reiner confirmed that in 2019 all the meat for Santa Monica’s store came from Belcampo Farms.

Toward the end of 2019, Reiner says that he began to notice subtle changes in the product coming in. It started with the lamb, recalls Reiner, who notes that distributors began to regularly drop off cases of product that did not originate from Belcampo Farms. The lamb also no longer carried an organic label, but staff members were instructed to put the meat in the display case under the same Belcampo signs as before. Those signs carried a higher price tag, in line with that of organic lamb from Belcampo Farms, though the lamb no longer met either criterion. “We were told [by management] to keep using the same signs. What were we supposed to do?” he says.

On its response page, which was updated on June 1 to reflect questions Eater specifically asked, the company states that “Belcampo’s lamb comes from Belcampo farms and its partner farms … All certifications for each product are communicated at the point of purchase on the website and on the packaging, and are verified by the USDA.”

Mural of Mt. Shasta at Belcampo on West Third Street in Los Angeles.

Mural of Mt. Shasta at Belcampo on West Third Street in Los Angeles
Wonho Frank Lee

Reiner, along with other current and past employees, says the coronavirus pandemic made sourcing from Belcampo’s farm all the more challenging. Some of the struggles, they say, included COVID-19 outbreaks at its retail locations and farm, increased demand for online orders, and reduced sales and layoffs at its retail storefronts and restaurants. Facing mounting difficulties, the company closed its New York City location at Hudson Yards after less than two years of operations, and multiple sources say the company simultaneously underwent an employee shakeup, bringing in new financial managers to oversee cost-cutting measures. Belcampo’s website does not mention the pandemic as a possible reason for sourcing issues within the company.

One former employee of Belcampo’s Santa Monica and West Third Street locations, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, said the number of workers before the pandemic was about 500; when the employee left earlier this year, the staffing was approximately 100. “They said they’re losing money as a company, and we need to tighten up,” Reiner tells Eater, noting that the company was implementing cost-saving measures, like reducing hours of existing staff and keeping a minimum level of workers during retail hours, even before the pandemic began in March 2020. Belcampo declined to respond to direct questions about its staff fluctuations.

The company was also involved in a wage theft lawsuit in 2020, brought by a Belcampo employee named Maria Celina Perez Aguilera on behalf of herself and other employees. The suit alleged a variety of labor and wage theft violations, including failure to pay workers minimum wage, failure to pay overtime wages, and failure by the company to adequately allow for employee meal breaks. Belcampo has agreed to pay $750,000 as part of a legal settlement that does not admit any wrongdoing on behalf of the company.

All former and current employees who spoke with Eater stated that Belcampo operates almost like two separate entities. The farm, which is directly tied to the company’s online sales portal and its wholesale partnerships, comprises one division, they say, while Belcampo’s restaurants and retail butcher shops are another separate entity under the same name. From its inception, Belcampo told its retail storefront and restaurant customers that all of its meat was sourced from its own farm, creating a one-stop supply chain where customers and diners could enjoy Belcampo’s sustainable steaks, burgers, and chops, though in reality, those restaurants and butcher shop locations often struggled to source exclusively from the farm, employees say.

The meat coming from the farm needed to be purchased by the restaurants and butcher shops, akin to any wholesale account, says one former Belcampo chef, and that meat came with a higher price tag than products from other suppliers. As a result, employees allege, financial managers decided that it would be beneficial to begin to routinely source outside meat from local restaurant suppliers rather than order it exclusively from Belcampo Farms. That way, employees say, the restaurants and butcher shops could continue charging the same price for steaks and other meats but at a much lower cost to the retail division.

Belcampo declined to respond directly to questions about its corporate structure or pricing strategies, saying instead: “Our goal is to conduct an unflinching review, understand what went wrong and address every issue fully and transparently. We thank our employees for their commitment to our mission and their support in this effort — their insights have already been invaluable.”

Beginning in June 2020, Reiner says he began seeing shipments from local meat purveyors come in, which he would cut into smaller steaks to help fill out the 30-foot meat case in Santa Monica. Reiner says a new financial manager was hired to watch over the store’s budget and, at one point, restricted the retail shop’s ordering to $2000 per week. “The only way to fill that case with that budget was to buy from Rocker Brothers,” Reiner says.

The finance person Reiner is referring to is Aron Cohen, the director of restaurant support at Belcampo, whose LinkedIn profile says he began working at Belcampo in May 2020 and is still with the company. Both Cohen and Miguel Ortiz, the current assistant general manager of the Santa Monica location, were involved in placing large orders of non-Belcampo meat for the shop, according to Reiner and a kitchen staff member. When reached for questions, Cohen declined to comment, while Ortiz stated, “we’re owning up and we’re trying to fix the situation. I can’t really speak to the other locations,” without responding to specific questions.

Counter at Belcampo Meat Co. in 2014 inside Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles.

Counter at Belcampo Meat Co. in 2014 inside Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles
Elizabeth Daniels

In early fall 2020, Reiner injured his knee in a non-work-related incident, which forced him off the job for nearly two months. When he returned in November 2020, he noticed even larger shipments coming in from Rocker Brothers and West Coast Prime Meats, two large meat distributors that routinely work with restaurants and butcher shops in the LA area. The companies sell animal products of various degrees of quality, from grass-fed, organic, humanely raised beef to factory-farmed commodity chicken and choice grade, corn-fed beef, depending on the needs of their wholesale customers. While the quality of meats coming in varied, Reiner says, including grass-fed beef filets from Tasmania’s Cape Grim Beef company (which is almost 8,000 miles from California), many of the other cuts weren’t traceable to specific farms because they were packaged by large producers like National Beef. What’s more, neither the distributors nor the companies on the product labels, like Cape Grim, appear anywhere on Belcampo’s website as approved partners.

Belcampo declined to answer specific questions about its partner farms program. While the move to a partnership model was a departure from some of the company’s original messaging of sourcing all of its meat from its own farm — a claim that still exists in the farm-to-table section of its current FAQ — Fernald has previously justified the transition, which was announced in June 2020, as a move to enact “long term change” by helping to “fix the way meat is produced in America.” Bringing on partner farms would create a “new standard” that would ultimately “increase the accessibility of humane, organic, and regeneratively farmed meat that consumers are actively seeking to support their own wellness and health.” It also, conveniently, helped Belcampo manage its supply issues at the retail and restaurant level, as well as address the more rigorous task of keeping its labeled products in stock online and at grocery stores.

On its website, the company states: “Belcampo launched its partner farm program in 2020 to grow its supply chain in partnership with other small and mid-size regenerative ranches. Belcampo’s partner farms either already share Belcampo’s values and produce meats that are regenerative, Certified Organic, Certified Humane, pasture-raised and grass-fed and finished, or Belcampo helps them achieve these new certifications over a period of time before considering them a qualified partner farm.” The company still has not updated its list of partner farms to include some of the products being brought into and sold at its locations in Southern California.

Eater reached out to both Rocker Brothers and West Coast Prime Meats to confirm their relationship with Belcampo. Both stated that they currently carry accounts with Belcampo, supplying a variety of meat products from bones and offal to more expensive steak cuts, for multiple store locations and restaurants. Each indicated that they label their products clearly based on USDA specifications, noting whether items are grass-fed or not, organic or not. Both state that they cannot confirm how those items were then packaged, labeled, and sold to customers at Belcampo, or for what price. Neither Rocker Brothers nor West Coast Prime are listed as Belcampo’s partner farms.

“We are declining to comment except for: product integrity and labeling is an important issue to West Coast and the industry right now,” wrote West Coast Prime Meats president Nathan Bennett in an email to Eater. “As a result, we go to extreme lengths to qualify and audit our suppliers and everything that leaves the dock from our USDA facility, whether processed or not, is labeled clearly and accurately.”

An emailed statement from Rocker Brothers reads: “Rocker Brothers is a vendor for Belcampo Meat. As with all of our customers, we provide proteins to spec based on the product needs and requirements of our customers. We make no misrepresentations of the products that we sell to our customers, and we have no control over how a customer chooses to utilize or represent their products to end consumers.”

These deliveries were substantial — numerous cases, often totaling hundreds of pounds, of everything from whole chickens and ground beef to popular cuts like rib-eye, pork loin, tenderloin, and top sirloin. Both Reiner and two other employees say part of the reason for these deliveries was to help fill out the very large meat case in Santa Monica and the smaller prepackaged retail display at the West Third Street shop. Reiner also says many of these cuts from the butcher shop ended up on the restaurant menu, especially after Los Angeles County allowed indoor dining to take place in a limited capacity beginning in late April 2021.

Two staff members tell Eater that whenever Fernald announced that she would be visiting any of the shops in Southern California, boxes and labels from distributors like Rocker Brothers or West Coast Prime were to be hidden from view before her arrival. Ortiz, in particular, allegedly warned other employees over text to “be careful with Rocker Bros” during Fernald’s store visits, ostensibly to keep those meats out of sight. Another line cook says that when Fernald came to the West Third store, she didn’t go to the back of the store to see how the kitchen was operating. Fernald declined to comment on her day-to-day involvement at the Belcampo store level.

All employees Eater spoke with said they felt that it was wrong to engage in this apparent mislabeling, which in turn deceived customers, though their reasons for not drawing attention to the issue sooner differed from person to person. For some it was (and remains) a fear of retaliation from upper management. Reiner, who was concerned about losing his job and the health insurance that covered his knee rehab, didn’t question upper management about the meat deliveries from West Coast Prime and Rocker Brothers. But starting with his return in November 2020, he says he became increasingly disillusioned with Belcampo’s apparent lack of transparency and began to document it with photos and videos he kept on his phone.

A person with knowledge of the farm operation told Eater that chicken, eggs, and lamb products are no longer being produced at the company’s farm in the Mount Shasta area, and have not been for some time. But the company stated as recently as April 10 that it is raising chickens on its primary Northern California farm. After posting a photo of new baby chicks on Instagram that day, a commenter asked “What farm is this one?” “Belcampo Farm in Siskiyou!” was the Belcampo account’s response. The same person and Reiner, who visited the farm earlier this year, says Belcampo did not have laying hens as of February 2021. In the May 27 response to Reiner’s allegations, Belcampo admitted that it ceased poultry production at its Mount Shasta farm and partnered with Big Bluff Ranch, which raises certified humane, organic chickens. Belcampo declined to answer questions from Eater about chickens or lamb on its farm.

All restaurant and butcher shop employees that Eater spoke with confirmed that the product and pricing controversy continued for months and that those cost reductions and product quality issues were never brought to the attention of customers. One person with access to profit-and-loss statements alleges that the Santa Monica location has had difficulties staying profitable since it opened in 2015 and that the outside sourcing was done at least in part to shore up that struggling part of the company. “The whole point of ordering [from distributors] was just to make money,” the West Third Street employee says. “It wasn’t about integrity.”

Sign at Belcampo Meat Co. in Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles in 2014.

Sign at Belcampo Meat Co. in Grand Central Market in Downtown Los Angeles in 2014

In a final Instagram rebuke on May 23, Reiner again blasted the company and its co-founder: “Anya Fernald and Belcampo absolutely do not give a flying fuck about you as customers. They just want money and followers.” A current employee, who asked to be anonymous for fear of losing their job, thinks Fernald was ignorant to the business issues plaguing retail and restaurant sides of the company, focusing her attention instead on growing Belcampo’s public-facing brand. “Anya wants to be an LA influencer,” they said. “It’s definitely greed, and getting her name out there.”

Other employees who spoke to Eater echoed similar sentiments regarding Fernald’s involvement (or lack thereof) in the on-the-ground sourcing, labeling, and pricing issues at the Santa Monica and West Third Street locations. They believe that in her current role atop the company, Fernald should have ultimately known about the financial issues and increasing reliance on outside vendors to supply non-Belcampo meat in its stores, but that much of the actual decision-making related to the intentional mislabeling was done by those further down the company chain.

As for the fallout from Belcampo’s apparent mislabeling of its products, the effects on its consumer base, who believed in the sustainable meat movement that Fernald and Belcampo have backed loudly for many years, remain to be seen. For some of Belcampo’s current and past employees, the controversy surrounding overcharging customers for lesser-quality products seems hard to come back from. “They didn‘t have the right people in charge to know how to work with the [growth] effectively. They did it in a way that was quick and easy because of the trust that people had in the company,” says a former assistant general manager, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared retaliation.

Despite the mislabeled products in the meat case and restaurant menus, other former employees believe that the company can still emerge from this recent scandal, so long as it is actually transparent moving forward. Being open about its past and current sourcing and the provenance of the meat it sells is step two; acknowledging and apologizing formally — and not just calling this an “isolated incident” — is step one, they say.

With Belcampo’s own admission that its meats were improperly labeled multiple times in Santa Monica, and allegations from multiple former employees that the West Third location also served non-Belcampo meats without notifying customers, it may be a long road for the brand to rebuild the trust it has lost from its most loyal fans. It’s also difficult for employees to grapple with the notion that they sold corn-fed or factory farmed meat to customers who thought they were doing better for the environment with their dollars. “I felt terrible about it,” says one former cook. “After a year, I just couldn’t do it any more.”

Other employees wonder how the brand got here after years of Belcampo’s feel-good approach to marketing and growth. “They [Belcampo] were trying to do a good thing,” says the former assistant general manager. The former manager says Belcampo could have developed a stronger foundation and more sustainable path for growth, but that management failed to navigate the company through changes. “They could have adjusted business practices and remained committed to regenerative farming, but they didn’t have the right people in charge. That is something they should have figured out, instead of taking the easy route and selling other meat.”

8053 W 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA 90048