#74: Richard Atkin – VP of Quality Assurance at Tendergrass Farms
Richard Atkin Podcast Transcript
Neil Dudley: Okay. Richard, welcome to the show. Hi, everybody out there in PNFer land, Pederson’s Natural Farms community and family. I’ve got a great, really great access for you to a guy who I’ve been working with for years, who is super knowledgeable about where food comes from, what makes food safe, how to implement and expect and require people to do what they say, do what they say they’re going to do. So, Richard, I want to just say thank you for really the friendship, the business relationship. And let’s tell everybody who you are just quickly, three or four minutes, two or three minutes of like where’d do you come from and what do you do, what are you passionate about?
Richard Atkin: Sure. So again, thank you for the invitation this morning. And looking forward to our conversation as it progresses today. As you said, I am Richard Atkin. I’m currently the Vice President of Quality Assurance at Tender Grass Farms, which is a great company that is working actively to remove barriers between supply and demand. And that’s really, really in alignment with my personal goals in life, especially because we’re so focused in that area of whole animal utilization as a way to be a part of the path forward for I think what’s necessary for the future of the planet.
Neil Dudley: Why do you think consumers care?
Richard Atkin: Well, I have to say that there’s a number of different areas, especially in coming most recently from the retail side of the shop, that definitely consumers are very, very concerned and they spend the time and effort to get themselves educated on where their food is coming from, I think primarily. And I think that’s where podcasts such as what you’re bringing to the table is one of those avenues in which those consumers who have a deep desire in improving their life and the life of those around them and the entire planet can come and learn some of the better insights that they might not be able to receive just from the little small bites and nuggets of information that get thrown out there to try to manipulate the general public’s attitude.
Neil Dudley: Yes, I mean, Pederson’s does it, Nature’s Rancher, this is the Whole Foods brand we have. I mean, and Richard has been kind of a policeman on us. I mean, maybe not actually what you might picture as that, but he sat in the organization in a way that like we needed a relationship because they wanted a partner, we wanted a partner, but like we also had to be held to a standard, and we mess up at times. I mean, this isn’t a Pederson’s Nature’s Rancher commercial. This podcast can’t be or it’s really not valuable. It is trying to be like we have access to industry experts, we have access to highly tenured and knowledgeable people that we need to just have a conversation with so people who care can listen. That’s just what you were touching on completely.
Richard Atkin: Yeah, I think I’m probably one of those oddball QA people that didn’t start out in food safety necessarily or quality assurance. I came up through the other side of the house. And so, I started out in live operations, came through, went through for the process scheduling, overseeing multiple facilities that the company that I worked for owned as well as copackers, and then when there was an opportunity for the company take a look at what could we do to bring people to the table in terms of overseeing the food safety and the quality aspect with those co-manufacturers, which is something that your company has experience with as well, having people produce product for you, those partnerships. It was an avenue for me to go to start working with some of the experts in the industry to get that knowledge on the ground of what was necessary and had great access to, for instance, Dr. Bruce Tompkin, who if anybody is working within the HACCP arena definitely is familiar with that name because that is the Tompkin paper that so many different companies rely upon to be able to set a food safety standard in terms of holding product temperatures. And so, what that has done for me is shown me that I only know what I know because other people invested time in me. And that’s where this partnership aspect came from, from starting to work with a variety of people as I did go to Whole Foods 15 years ago, to find those people who were really endeavoring to improve the quality of product and improve the aspects of the animal’s life so that we had better quality, better tasting product, as well as have a good ending to their time after spending their time on the farm. And finding those folks that we could work with at a very small level to a large company standpoint enabled me to share what other people had shared with me. Because I didn’t want folks to have to go through the school of hard knocks like I had, and so that’s what part of the benefit is. I look back at my earliest time working with Pederson’s Farms, I think it was actually not even on a program that was specifically for you. We were partnering with a guy who was working with his family and his kids to basically start raising hogs locally there in Texas and trying to find some place to help them get their product to market. Your team came out and we went and looked at slaughter facilities together. And that wasn’t even something that you guys were doing specifically to have an avenue for product for yourselves. You just were an active member of the community and wanted to participate and wanted to help. And now I found that to be so very helpful. And it just is in alignment with my goals of what I think that we’re here to do on our time here on Earth.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, I mean, that’s- if you’re going to do business in an industry within a community, you got to get involved. I mean, and look, I would be lying if I didn’t think some little thing was tickling in the back of my brain that said this might be a financial opportunity for us too. I mean, really, any relationship building is a financial opportunity for you. You might not see it blatantly, but it is certainly true. That is part of what network means. I mean, I’ve reached out to Richard. I mean, we’ll go a couple years without talking, then bam, something comes up, and we just talk. We’re like, okay, cool. This is how I think about this. Can you do it like this? Have you talked to this person?
Richard Atkin: Does it make sense for us to build a facility? And if so, what’s involved so that we get that off on the right start and don’t run into problems later with different pathogens and things like that? Or does it make sense to manage things through copackers? And all of those things. And you guys have been always great partners on that.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. I mean, the most memorable thing I can just pull out of my brain is we packaged a German cockroach in a package of product that went to a store. It was like, how does this happen? Oh, my gosh, we’ve put so many things in place to make sure we deal with pests within- Some people may not know this, but all buildings have insects and pests and things. I mean, every building does, so you have to make plans, you have to do a lot of work. We have a whole team at Pederson’s that keeps up with these things. And it still happened. But it was like, hey, Neil, guess what I found? Like, oh, my gosh, so what do we need to do? So we just deal with that. We raise our hand, yep, that’s on us. What are the next steps? Here’s our plans to tighten things up, figure out what where that-
Richard Atkin: Make sure we didn’t have any product out there on the market that would be impacted, absolutely, so that we could protect the consumers. I think that partnership and working together in all those different areas is definitely in alignment with wanting to participate in creating and flourishing the world around us. And I think that we do that through stewardship. And that’s definitely a part of how can we do the best choice, the best options to facilitate that working together across the entire supply chain.
Neil Dudley: And then that’s where you all have to get a little bit awoken – that’s not a word – a little bit, you have to realize nobody else has to fail for you to succeed. Like let’s all just get on this boat and row. I’m not here to put commodity production out of business. I’m not here to throw shade on them. I’m here to say this is how we do it, everybody. Look at this, this is how we do it. I want to tell you as clearly as I possibly can. And then we still have issues with greenwashing, labeling, when we say this, we’re going to say we’re humanely raised. Well, what does that mean? What is that actually? And how can we have verification to this and understanding behind it? Because we are looking for differentiators. We are looking for ways to provide a consumer the thing they’re looking for, and not every consumer looks for the same thing. Anyways, I’m on my soapbox a little bit. But that stuff is- I’m passionate about it. Our company’s passionate about it. We want it to be really- just raise the boat for everybody.
Richard Atkin: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that I have really enjoyed about working in this industry because I originally came out of the conventional industry before I came into the natural and organic space. And so, it took a little while to kind of wrap my mind around it. And I can definitely remember one of the first times that I would go to an animal welfare conference after changing from that previous company to coming to Whole Foods. There was the first few years of going to those meetings, obviously, presentation after presentation after presentation about how awful it was that we were going into the market with these types of products and making those types of claims. And the guys, the bigger guys at the beginning just weren’t on board at first. But as we started working with them, then they started seeing, oh, there is some positive aspects to this, we’re seeing that when we treat our animals right and when we do things to participate in stewardship of antibiotics and those types of things, when we actually start engaging in this, the consumers will respond very positively. But it also has positive impacts on the animals and has a positive impact on the actual product safety, as well as the quality and the taste of things as well. It’s really cool how all that kind of builds one piece upon another and how it’s all integrated.
Neil Dudley: And profits. Like, I mean, that’s a piece of that puzzle, too. I don’t want to leave that out. It can feel at times as a vendor to consumers, they’re squeezing the dog out of me all the time for cheaper, cheaper, cheaper, and I just can’t make it cheaper and keep doing what I’m doing. I mean, there’s just not a truth in that. So, I like to bring that up just as I’m not going to Cabo every weekend, but our company has to make a little money in order to sustain itself and to move forward and to hire new people and to pay the talent we have what they are worth in the marketplace. All those things are just kind of the intricacies of it.
Richard Atkin: So, they are important. I like to joke that I view my position as being sales prevention, and many people have heard me indicate that’s what my job is. But I do that for two reasons. One is it’s kind of a humorous point to kind of break the tension in sometimes some difficult discussions. But also, it is to remind me that the decisions that I make or help other people make is going to have a positive impact or negative impact to the bottom line. And those financial resources are what are necessary to be able to go back and find innovative ways to improve product quality or to improve food safety or to improve animal welfare. And so, without that income to be able to come in to pay for that innovation, nothing ever progresses. And that’s a part of the necessary step to be able to help the environment flourish.
Neil Dudley: Yep, it has a whole lot to do with where your food comes from. You bet. Now I want to get to a couple of the questions because I like them, I’m curious what you’re going to say. From your perspective, in your mind, what is the most important thing about where your food comes from? Is there such a thing as the most important?
Richard Atkin: So for me, again, coming out of conventional industry, I was highly skeptical, and I think part of that has to do with how I’ve been trained. And so, I’m not 100% certain if all QA people are skeptical, or if it’s just skeptical people tend to gravitate towards QA. So, I was initially very skeptical of a lot of the different claims that people were going after. But I think now, I was initially skeptical of this regenerative agriculture initially. It just seemed like, what are they talking about? It just didn’t make sense. But the turning point for me on that and why that’s now what I think is the most important aspect of it is understanding that there really is a deep necessity for positive animal impact in the discussions about how we can sequester carbon and how that functionality is able to be improved, especially in the case of rotating through quickly through grazing, especially with grazing animals with hooves that can actually work that stuff back into the soil as they’re going through the grazing process and keeping it cropped off at the right level. And seeing that impact happen very nicely on some really hard soiled, used up kind of farmland out at Roam Ranch on bison and seeing that improvement. But the trigger point that opened my eyes was meeting Nick Voss, who’s a South African farmer who’s now out in western Kansas. He’s finding seeds and selling seeds. But he also is a Dorper sheep producer. He raises the basic stock for breeding purposes to help develop improvements in that type of animal. And he came down and gave a presentation to us where he showed that over time, starting after World War II, the USDA started looking at what are the nutritional values of the food that we’re eating. And so that was originally done just from a scientific standpoint just to be able to help facilitate the nutritional planning and things like that with school lunch programs and that type of thing. But what’s interesting is that when you go back and look at it over time, as we have followed the methodology of raising and producing our food, that nutritional value went down and down and down and down. And what we’re seeing now is through regenerative agricultural processes of how we’re putting the things back into soil health and brown cover back on it, so that we’re retaining all that water, especially in dry areas. The things that were worked out in Africa that have done so well over there, getting that improvement over here, we’re already seeing the improvements in the nutritional value of the grains and the vegetables and the fruit that’s coming out of that environment. And so that’s going to then improve the grass nutritional value. And then likewise, that’s going to actually start improving dramatically the nutritional value of the meat that comes from those animals that have been eating in that environment. And really, I think, with a lot of the inflammation that people are suffering from, if people had a better understanding of that nutritional value that meat brings to the table and focused on that more than some of the vegetarian ideas that folks have had, I think you’ll see a big improvement in human health and try to roll back some of the unintended consequences that have come out of the food pyramid or My Plate and those choices that people are making in terms of what products are good to put into my body that’s going to provide good health to me, as well as have better information about how vital animal production can be into improving the environment and overall global carbon sequestration.
Neil Dudley: You’re hitting on my soapbox again. I’m sitting here, I’m loving it because- No, no, I do. I love it. I agree with you. I mean, it’s you’re not- I guess I’m kind of encouraging me to get on my soapbox. But I don’t want to do that because this is about your information. But just to say, don’t take for granted that animals are killing our climate or our globe. Like almost every Gen Zer just has that kind of like naturally in their brain. I mean, it surprises me. They immediately-
Richard Atkin: Sorry to interrupt, but there’s just a whole level of indoctrination that’s going on out there. So, there’s a way that it’s getting into people’s heads. It’s just unfortunately, it’s with a purpose that’s probably not really related to the outcomes that they think that they’re trying to impact.
Neil Dudley: So just don’t believe everything you hear, go do some research, go and use your logical brain. Now I got to realize my logic comes from a different experience than most everybody else’s logic. We all develop our logic. It is not like this download you get when you’re born. You build it over time through your life, through your experience. So my logic is going to be a lot different than most because I grew up in animal agriculture. I mean, so I have just seen all those pieces of it. I’ve lived it. So, my logic says I’m not sure Beyond Burgers make sense. So somebody else’s logic could come from a whole different direction. That’s partly why you’re such a great guy to know because you can synthesize that stuff and then put it back in a way to me or to whoever you’re working with to say, okay, cool, let’s think about this a little bit.
Richard Atkin: Yeah, that particular type of product that you’re talking about there is just so overly processed. It has almost no, nothing natural about it anymore. It does not even come close to the vegetable matter that it started out as or was intended to be eaten as, and the amount of water that it takes to go through all of that processing, in addition to the raising aspect of it completely out shadows and outstrips what you are able to naturally produce through animal agriculture.
Neil Dudley: Now, how do we talk to people and help them understand they can trust us? Or that they should at least- because I think you could go find an article written by some substantial person that says this about water and usage and how cattle are so many pounds or gallons of water, and they’re part of the reason we’re going to be having a water shortage. Like you could go find an article like that written by somebody that you could trust. How do we battle that kind of truth in the way the information is out there these days?
Richard Atkin: I think it goes back to what we started out with at the top of the call. It’s this lack of relationship that causes this disconnect between how things actually are versus how things are perceived or how things are twisted or spun in order to try to achieve some other end goal. And unfortunately, as more and more people are concentrated into cities and towns, I think the only aspect or the only way to change that is going to be through that relationship building that can happen in a retail environment if you’re able to go in and spend time in a place where people that have those misconceptions are likely to be shopping, in a store that also happens to have your type of product in it as well. And you can engage in those conversations respectfully, carefully, thoughtful. But I think that’s going to be a big part of how we get out in front of it. That and we need to find a Kardashian who eats meat.
Neil Dudley: Like, how do you get the audience- attention is absolutely a commodity. I mean, we’re searching for attention with this podcast. I mean, the attention that you can manage to get helps you get your position out. Kardashians can easily get theirs out. I mean, it’s a great example. Big Pharma gets theirs out pretty well with their funding. And it’s one thing that kind of keeps me a little bit logically skeptical of big companies, really big companies that are kind of ran by the stock exchange and share price and that kind of thing. It just keeps me skeptical.
Richard Atkin: I agree. Because, unfortunately, especially in the case of publicly traded companies, they end up having to make so many short term decisions in order to be able to put forward their best information or their best numbers each quarter. That’s not really a long term approach or strategy to finding avenues that expand, so to speak, what they might be able to do if they were able to take a more long term approach.
Neil Dudley: 100%. Okay, next question. This one’s just, you’ve got a wealth of knowledge, so I’m curious, tell us about your latest creation, educational failure, win, it could be anything. It could be, well, I played softball last weekend and we won. I don’t know. What’s something that comes to mind when I pose that question?
Richard Atkin: So the first thing that pops in my mind is something that I’ve been a part of looking at over the long haul, going back to the mid 90s. So, I worked for a turkey company. And we would sometimes get to a point where we would have some flocks of turkeys that would get ill, and we would try the normal ways of trying to help them to get better. I’d work with a vet. We’d look at different antibiotics that we would try on some things. And then, sometimes those just didn’t work. And so there was a few cases where the vet would say, well, let’s go try this, and we’d go try a human new type of antibiotic, like Cipro. I can remember standing in the back room, and we’re like let’s see if we can save some of these animals. So we took some Cipro tablets, ground it up, and we fed it to some animals to see if that would work. So we were focused on how can we help these animals live through whatever this thing is that we’re trying to experience. Moving forward and looking back at that, I can see, well, that made sense at the time, but we didn’t yet know what we understand today about needing to be very careful in stewarding the antibiotics that we have available, because over time, the use of antibiotics and the manner in which we have done so on this planet has selected for certain types of bacteria that are already naturally resistant. So, all of its cousins that are in that environment that are being fed antibiotics, all those die out because antibiotics worked. And then the one that just had that natural immunity to it is what was able to surface up to the top and continue to grow out. There’s other aspects of some genetic things that happen where you got bacteria in a mix or whatever that can have an impact. But unfortunately, the biggest impact from my understanding of the research that is actually out there and available is that we actually have a bigger impact as humans on antibiotics’ use or overuse, by virtue not of what we select in our purchases for meat and poultry, but more from the aspect of I feel sick, I go to my doctor, my kid’s got a runny nose, they’ve got a virus. So I ask for antibiotics because that’s what I think I need. And then we’ll take that home, we’ll take it for a couple of days until we get better. And then we don’t finish what they’ve given us. So, what do we do with that? We throw it down the drain, we flush it, out it goes into the environment to add to the problem. The bacteria that might have been in your body, that you didn’t take your full script of antibiotics, you might have hurt them, but then they lived through it because you stopped taking it before you used it all up. And so now they’re tougher, bigger, stronger, coming out and spreading around. And unfortunately, this seems to happen in hospital environments more than anywhere else, to the degree that it has its own name. It’s called a nosocomial infection, which just means hospital acquired. So yes, there can be some impacts from animal agricultural practices. But I think we as people have a bigger impact by making better choices in our own health care.
Neil Dudley: Hey, and I’ve lived that. Like, you’re not saying something that anybody listening hasn’t done. I mean, if they want to pretend like they haven’t, well, then I just would have to have some proof. Because we’ve all done it. I mean, we’ve all got kids that are sick, you’re giving them penicillin. This is just an example. And well, they’re better. There’s still five days left of the medicine, and they’re feeling better, you’re tired of making them take it. And then we let them do it.
Richard Atkin: And that tastes bad. That’s gross.
Neil Dudley: Yeah. Well, go ahead.
Richard Atkin: No, I was just going to say so that’s certainly definitely an aspect of it. But that doesn’t mean that we can then correspondingly say, well, that’s doctors problems, that’s hospitals problems, that’s it all by itself. So we have to, in animal agriculture, take a look at are there ways that we can find other avenues to reduce our use of those things, in addition to the just normal ones, but especially those that are important to human health. And one thing that we’ve worked on for a number of years that’s kind of exciting is how can we help producers and other processors find ways to just verify that all their controls that they’ve put in place to make sure that animals that aren’t being treated that don’t need to be treated aren’t and making sure that if animals are treated, that they’re segregated out so that they don’t get accidentally mislabeled. Or it can happen where you have a medicated feed that can be pre mixed and then put into a truck. And you’ve got a truck driver delivering that medicated feed to a farm. And he might be new and will have stopped at a farm a mile down the road and deliver that medicated feed to the wrong farm. And it’s not an intentional thing. So, it’s an accidental thing. So, you need to have that verification. And so, going back to some of those challenges that really came up, the most interesting experience with that that I had was right before 9/11, we were in a trade dispute with Russia over stainless steel. So, they started testing every load of poultry meat that was coming into the country, and they were finding positives for antibiotics residue. And it was on stuff that had absolutely been tested. So we got together a small working group, tried to sort through it. And in the midst of that, trying to sort through it, 9/11 happened. So that definitely constrained our access to understand the materials that they were using for their tests over there. So, we got a copy of their test procedures. The embassy tried to translate that for us to work through it. They couldn’t, so we had to find somebody with a laboratory that could do it. So, we actually got a laboratory outside of Moscow whose purpose was developing bio weapons to be used against the US to take this big safety procedure and translate it from Russian into English so we could understand it. And then we needed the particular type of bacteria that they were using for their tests that was super sensitive to the levels of antibiotics. We used our best science over here to test for it. We didn’t find any antibiotics residue. But this test over there did. So, we had to get that into the country. All shipments were shut down during 9/11, shortly after that. So with the help of the US Embassy again, they brought it through to us to look at through using a diplomatic pouch. So hopefully the length of time since then to now is past enough that nobody’s going to get in trouble. But it’s just this processes that you do to try to figure out what are the impediments to trade? Or what do we need to do to make things better and improve? So jump to today or even five years ago, start looking at how can we put some things in place to better understand that we aren’t getting unintended antibiotics residue into our system and make sure that the things that we’re saying are truthful on a package label. So spend time researching, investigating, going out spending time walking farms, and going through a feed mill in Scotland because they have different rules over there about how they handle antibiotics and things like that. So doing that research over there, coming back, bringing that here, working it out, and coming up with some ways to actually find a way to start screening for that to better have a process of doing some verification checks to make sure that what we say we’re doing, what we think is doing is actually happening in a way that we do it. And so we’ve been able to work with some really great people like Dr. Bob Salter at Charm Sciences to take the standard USDA test that is done in processing plants for antibiotics residue testing, find a way to use that screening test at an increased amount of sensitivity. So we can look at not just are we meeting the USDA standards on residues but can we actually find out has this animal been treated with antibiotics at all. And so being able to do that, and then work with Dr. Kumari at IH Labs to verify and validate that process has been, to me, a really thrilling process to be involved with and that’s something that we’re starting to see to become available now to inexpensively verify and screen for accidents that can happen or actually find the bad actors if there are some bad actors out there. In my experience, you generally don’t find that many bad actors because if they’re cheating on this or scrimping on that, you can see that in other areas of their process or their programs. So there’s not that many that are out there that don’t eventually get caught. And if people have questions about that, they can use the Google to find stories of people who have been caught doing that in different parts of the country.
Neil Dudley: Yeah, sure. The Google. But what really sounds loud in my ear with this piece of the conversation is trust but verify. And I don’t love that. Like, I just want everybody to trust me. Look, I’m a good person. I’m doing what I said I was going to do. That’s the cowboy way. It’s just how I am. No, you still got to verify. I mean, I don’t love that truth. But when you’re dealing with people’s money, they’re spending money for your products, okay, then you need to be verified, if you’re dealing with safety.
Richard Atkin: And what you said there I think is part of the challenge. That is why consumers may not trust that farmers and ranchers are actually doing the right thing the majority of the time. It’s because they’re so independently minded and so much of that culture is a handshake. I can remember-
Neil Dudley: Stay out of my business, I don’t need to tell you.
Richard Atkin: But when you got to an agreement, it was settled with a handshake. And for the first several years, a lot of my experience in making commitments with people, it wasn’t with actual written contracts. It was this is what we’re going to agree to, and it was done on a handshake. And now you trust me because you know me, you know my nature, you know my attitude, and you know that I’m going to stand behind what I say that I’m doing. So that can come across to other folks that they’re reacting to or asking for verification as if it’s an attack on who they are as a person. And so, they see that defensiveness come up. And so then in their minds, it can be, well, why, what are they trying to- they’re really defensive over this, what are they trying to hide? And I think that’s part of how things kind of got off the rail over the last 20, 30 years between the consumer and the producers.
Neil Dudley: There we are, back to relationships again. Oh, everybody, thank you so much. If you’ve listened this long, you’ve spent a good long while with your time, that’s not free to you. I say this in every episode, but it’s just true. Time is your most valuable asset. Thank you for spending it with us. Richard, thank you for spending your time helping me get the word out. Come back next time, we’ll have some more interesting conversation with somebody else that has a different perspective, a different kind of thought leader position. That’s what the Pederson’s Podcast is all about. That’s why I so much love doing it. Richard, thank you so much.
Does food safety and quality truly matter to consumers, and should it matter? This week on Pederson’s podcast, Neil Dudley is joined by Richard Atkin, the Vice President of Quality Assurance at Tendergrass Farms to discuss where food comes from and the processes used to determine if food is meeting standards of safety and quality. They discuss the changes they’ve seen in the industry, the importance of third party verification, and the rise of regenerative agriculture. This episode is packed with valuable perspectives from two men who know the industry well!
Visit us online: https://pedersonsfarms.com/
(0:30) – Introducing Richard
(2:00) – Why do you think consumers care?
(13:47) – What is the most important thing about where your food comes from?
(20:28) – How do we talk to people to make them understand the truth of animal agriculture?
(23:35) – Richard’s work in making sure medications & antibiotics aren’t being given to the wrong animals or accidentally leaked into food, etc.