Q: Please trace the history of Coast Packing Company for us.
Eric Gustafson: Coast Packing was started in 1922 by my great grandfather and his best friend, who wanted to build a meat packing and processing company from the ground up. They started processing live hogs and cattle through our plant and producing lard and tallow. Our main products today are a result of that decision.
The original company thrived in the fresh meat processing business for more than 40 years, until it hit economic times that were difficult to overcome. Great grandpa had the foresight to take a step back and reevaluate our options. At the time, we were one of the largest producers of live hogs and cattle in Los Angeles.
When we exited that market, many of the meat packers and processors in the area picked up our volume but did not have the vertical integration that Coast Packing did. The edible fat they produced came to our plant for further processing into lard and tallow. As a result of that, we were able to rebuild the business into what the company is today — the number one provider of animal fat shortenings in the Western United States.
Q: What’s the difference between lard and beef tallow?
Gustafson: It’s very common for people to get confused about what lard and beef tallow really are. Many people take beef tallow and call it beef lard, which is an oxymoron. Ultimately, lard comes only from hogs and tallow only from cattle or beef.
Q: How is each used, and how does each affect the foods to which they’re added?
Gustafson: Lard and tallow are both used for baking and frying, and there are also specific applications for each. In a few cases, there are some transitive uses. Lard is grandma’s pie crusts and bread and various cookies, and it’s popular in other traditional ethnic foods – tamales and tortillas in the Hispanic market, almond cookies in the Asian market.
Beef tallow is popular for French fries, much like McDonalds did in the 1980s and ’90s. Classic French fries are best fried in beef tallow shortening. Beef tallow can also be used for baking cookies and breads, as well, especially in ethnic markets – Hispanic most notably.
Q: But lard and tallow wouldn’t be used interchangeably. If they both could be used for French fries, why would you use one over the other?
Gustafson: For French fries, you could use lard, but it’s not going to provide the best flavor profile or consistency in fry life, whereas beef tallow will. And that’s why beef tallow has always been more popular for deep frying in general, whether it’s French fries or chicken or fish or shrimp.
Q: What properties in lard and beef tallow promote health, and what properties are problematic?
Gustafson: First and foremost is the natural makeup of both lard and tallow. Neither contains the artificial trans fats you find in hydrogenated shortenings. Lard and tallow are naturally stable and solid at room temperature. At Coast, they are minimally processed, unlike a shortenings and oils from other suppliers, which is consistent with the whole movement in food and cooking right now. When you look at ingredient statements, the fewer on the deck, the better. That tends to make the product healthier than having it contain any number of things you can’t pronounce. In addition, the polyunsaturates in lard and tallow are also higher than in other shortenings and oils, so there’s some real benefit in that.
Q: Why do you feel animal fats are trending again in kitchens and in restaurants across America?
Gustafson: The trend has a great deal to do with what’s going on with trans fats, specifically artificial trans fats. The public is now coming to the conclusion that animal fats have been demonized for too long. The reality is that animal fats are not as bad as they once were thought to be, and the replacements for them are actually worse than originally thought.
Restaurants and retailers are looking for solutions. Increasingly, we’re seeing that the industry has an open mind; everyone realizes there’s not going to be a silver bullet. There are many opportunities for animal fats to be part of the solution, along with other products. Long-term, we believe animal fats will certainly have their place at the table.
Q: Some kitchens and industrial food processors continue to favor vegetable oils. Is this all about incumbency, the cost of goods, the difficulty of change? Are lard and beef tallow more expensive?
Gustafson: The biggest challenge is the supply chain. And it’s not so much the expense, because historically, lard and beef tallow have been cheaper when compared to vegetable shortenings over the last, say, 20 years.
Finite supply chains and the availability of product are very real issues. Lard and beef tallow specifically are simply not as available as some competitive products. Even so, there certainly is room to grow the supply chain. For now, the biggest challenge for the industrial user is how readily available the product is.
Q: How aware are consumers of the differences between animal fats and vegetable fats?
Gustafson: The consumer is starting to become more educated. Part of that is our job at Coast Packing — to help engage the consumer, be the thought leader and help them understand the differences. People still think of Crisco when we talk about lard and beef tallow as a shortening. In the millennial generation, not a lot of people know what lard and tallow are.
But once you have the opportunity to provide the information and show the differences – once you have people’s attention – it’s possible to dispel the confusion. One key aspect is very clear: lard and beef tallow are derived from an animal source, and vegetable oils and shortenings are derived from a vegetable source — soybean, canola, palm, coconut and so on and so forth.
Q: What about things like palm oil? What other oils are emerging in the industry as alternatives to animal fats?
Gustafson: Palm oil certainly has been around for a very long time. These days, it’s regarded as more of a way to replace artificial trans fats found in other vegetable shortenings than as a replacement for lard and tallow. Coconut oil has had a resurgence in popularity as well.
Q: What about olive oil?
Gustafson: Olive oil is used in light cooking and sautéing, but you can’t use it for baking and heavy duty frying applications. It doesn’t have the same durability and resilience as animal fats.
Q: In terms of issues of taste versus health, is there always a tradeoff?
Gustafson: It’s best to look at the bigger picture of health, taste and the perceived tradeoffs. The classic example occurred years ago, when Wonder Bread went away from using lard to make its popular white bread, and they put “no cholesterol” in the balloons on the packaging. If there are, let’s say, 22 slices in that loaf, that 22 milligrams of cholesterol — one milligram per slice. When you throw on your cheese, you add 30 milligrams, and if you add your mayonnaise, there’s another 100 milligrams or so. The joke is, shake all that off and just enjoy your slice of bread with one milligram of cholesterol. Not going to happen.
It does come back to: why do we eat? We eat because we like how something tastes. And if you consume things in moderation, the idea is to enjoy the experience of eating out.
Q: How do consumers make their preferences known to restaurants and the major food service companies? How much do consumers’ preferences matter to these companies?
Gustafson: Consumer preference is the ultimate driver of what we do in the industry as a whole. Coast believes in consumer choice first and foremost. We’ve seen that when I ask chefs and restaurant operators: what kinds of questions are your customers posing?
Five or ten years ago, if they asked, “do you use animal fats?” that might have had a negative connotation. Today, you see restaurants touting animal fats on their menus — they use beef tallow, for instance, in their French fries, and consumers are coming in droves to eat them.
Consumers have to do their best to communicate what they like and enjoy. When they go to places where they may not get what they want, they should feel free to voice their opinion. It’s up to them to make their choices clear.
Q: There’s a strong movement today around ensuring that food is authentic. As you noted, that’s a part of being “minimally processed,” is that right?
Gustafson: Yes, that is certainly who we are. We use that approach to tell our company’s story and to help bridge whatever knowledge gaps may exist out there. These days, we’re seeing more people come to the table, no pun intended, with an accurate point of view about animal fats. They’re asking the right questions – about things like artificial vs. natural trans fats, the role of animal fats in a balanced diet, the toxic additives that are so abundant in manufactured food — and they want to be educated. When you have that, that’s a recipe for success.
Q: Is that in part how consumers can understand the concept of farm-to-table?
Gustafson: As consumers, the first thing to ask and understand is how products are manufactured. In the case of edible lard and tallow, we can source material from the largest packers to the smallest packers — at the end of the day, the product is still coming from the primary source, which is the animal. From there, we do further – but minimal – manufacturing, to provide a finished product.
Q: What responsibilities do retailers have in communicating these changes in attitudes to their customers – that is, that animal fats are safe to use in moderation, and that using some fats in cooking isn’t necessarily going to make anyone fat?
Gustafson: Retailers do have an opportunity to communicate that to their customers, although it can be difficult. One of the easier ways is to embrace animal fats in the products they manufacture at a store level, from breads and cookies to tamales and carnitas.
And we at Coast Packing need to do our job to communicate to retailers as well as consumers, to reinforce the story and connect the dots — that animal fats are indeed good for you in moderation.
Q: When the new federal dietary guidelines come out, they may compound confusion rather than mitigate it. What’s your perspective on that?
Gustafson: No question, the dietary guidelines are a challenge to communicate clearly. You have a panel of people who have specific ideas that may or may not align with the general public’s thoughts and ideas.
At Coast Packing, we want everyone to remember why we eat particular foods — because they taste good, because we like how they make us feel and because, yes, they have nutritional value. A governing body may tell us one thing to do, but we all need to educate ourselves and do what we believe works for us.
Eric R. Gustafson is CEO of Coast Packing Company, the number one supplier of animal fat shortenings in the Western United States. Gustafson is the fourth generation in his family to own and operate Coast Packing. He is responsible for the company’s strategic direction and vision, and manages overall operations. Prior to being named CEO, he served as Vice President of Operations and has held various sales and marketing posts since December 2002. He has been a member of Coast’s Board of Directors since 2009.