Behind The Label: Where In-N-Out’s Beef Really Comes From

Animal-style, but with how much respect for the animals?

For many foodies, a trip to California isn’t complete without a stop at In-N-Out Burger, the cult fast food chain that counts Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, and Julia Child among its fans. In-N-Out prides itself on providing fast food that isn’t just delicious, but also fresh and locally-sourced.

A A look at In-N-Out’s sourcing practices finds that the majority of its beef comes from Harris Ranch Beef Company, California’s largest industrial cattle farm. We’re guessing those cows aren’t grass fed, but what else does this fact imply about In-N-Out’s ethical standards?

Founded in 1948 by Harry and Esther Snyder, In-N-Out was California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand to collect orders through a two-way speaker box, which Harry himself engineered. Over the years, In-N-Out has resisted the temptation to franchise or go public, in order to maintain its high quality standards. Snyder’s mission from the start has been to “give customers the freshest, highest quality foods you can buy and provide them with friendly service in a sparkling clean environment.” By all appearances, this mission continues to be the focus of In-N-Out’s operations today.

The Good

For a fast food chain with more than 275 locations, In-N-Out has done an impressive job at maintaining its commitment to freshness. Its menu is simple – hamburgers, cheeseburgers, french fries, and shakes – though many in-the-know order off its not-so-secret menu, which includes the famous “Animal-Style” option, with a mustard-cooked beef patty, pickle, grilled onions, and In-N-Out’s “special spread,” said to include ingredients similar to Thousand Island Dressing.

In-N-Out’s ingredients aren’t pre-packaged or frozen – in fact, their restaurants don’t even have microwaves, heat lamps, or freezers. Hamburger patties are produced in two facilities, one in Baldwin Park, California, and one in Dallas, Texas, using “whole chucks from premium cattle selected especially for In-N-Out Burger.”

The emphasis on quality doesn’t stop at the beef. Buns are baked using old-fashioned, slow-rising sponge dough, and the lettuce is “hand-leafed” (as opposed to mechanically-leafed?). In-N-Out’s famous fries are made from real potatoes that are delivered from the farm, individually cut in store, and cooked in cholesterol-free vegetable oil. And those milkshakes? Made from real ice cream, of course.

Not only can customers taste the difference but renowned chefs as well. Anthony Bourdain professes a “soft spot” for In-N-Out’s classic hamburger, and Gordon Ramsay once admitted to sneaking into an In-N-Out, finishing a double cheeseburger, leaving the restaurant, then immediately driving back for seconds. Thomas Keller has long been a devotee, and even Julia Child famously carried a list of In-N-Out locations in her pocketbook.

The Bad

Among other things, In-N-Out prides itself on the quality of its meat:

We pay a premium to purchase fresh, high-quality beef chucks. We individually inspect every single chuck we receive to make sure that it meets our standards. Then our highly skilled, in-house butchers remove the bones. We grind the meat ourselves and make it into patties ourselves. These steps enable us to completely control the patty-making process and be absolutely certain of the quality and freshness of every patty we make. We’ve always made our hamburger patties this way.

This may be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the majority of beef used in In-N-Out burgers comes from factory farms. One of In-N-Out’s major beef suppliers is Harris Ranch Beef Company, an 800-acre property with more than 100,000 cattle located in Coalinga, California. As California’s largest beef producer, Harris Ranch has drawn extensive scrutiny from food activists for its factory farming methods. In fact, it was the stench of dying cattle coming from Harris Ranch that inspired author and food activist Michael Pollan to write “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” his seminal book on the industrialization of food.

That much-publicized fact may be why David E. Wood, the chairman of Harris Ranch, reacted so adamantly when California Polytechnic University, his alma mater, invited Pollan to give a lecture on sustainable agriculture in 2009. In a letter released to the Washington Post, Wood said that he found it “unacceptable that the university would provide Michael Pollan an unchallenged forum to promote his stand against conventional agricultural practices” and threatened to withdraw a promised $500,000 donation if the lecture went on as scheduled. Faced with that threat, the university agreed to change the format of the presentation to a panel discussion including other food experts. Soon after, Pollan said that while he is open to debate, “what’s happening at Cal Poly has a very different flavor. They want to close this conversation down. Harris Ranch does not understand academic freedom.”

In addition to opposing Pollan’s campus lecture, Wood also expressed concern about Cal Poly’s “politically expedient but unsupportable focus” on sustainable agriculture.

Let me be clear. I fully appreciate the importance of developing niche markets; however, I feel strongly that in exposing students to these alternative markets the university should take utmost care NOT to detrimentally impact conventionally produced agricultural products which represent fully 90% of all foods consumed in the United States. I am fearful that in its zeal to promote and teach these ‘alternative’ production practices, the university is giving credence to those within the environmental movement who believe that only practices described BY THEM as ‘sustainable’ should be employed in agriculture.

The Questionable

In-N-Out’s reputation for quality and freshness is deserved in many respects. However, the company’s sourcing relationship with Harris Ranch calls into question the nature of its ethical standards. The published letter from David E. Wood to Cal Poly is rare public evidence of the influence exerted by the factory farm industry on the food debate in America. In the letter, Wood doesn’t just attempt to silence his critics, but he also advises the university against teaching its students “alternative” production methods like sustainable agriculture, using his financial support of the university as leverage.

While I’m happy to support a homegrown business like In-N-Out Burger with my hard-earned dollar, I have absolutely no interest in supporting a vendor like Harris Ranch, with its inhumane cattle raising methods and heavy-handed attempts to clamp down on sustainable agriculture education. While I have been known to happily indulge in the odd In-N-Out cheeseburger (extra sauce, hold the onions) something about this new knowledge leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Behind the Label: McDonald’s See What We’re Made Of Campaign

Behind the Label: Chipotle, Food With Integrity

Behind the Label: Pret a Manger

77 Random Things to be Grateful for

Check out all Behind the Label columns here.

Images: Aaron Friedman, Steven Damron, Marshall Astor

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.