With his thinning white hair and black Polo-style shirt with a Niman Ranch “Raised With Care” logo over his heart, Paul Willis looks like a kindly grandfather. This soft-spoken man certainly doesn’t look like a pig killer.
But that’s the business he’s in.
Willis, a high-profile spokesman for the “humane meat” movement, co-founded and manages the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a division of Niman Ranch, whose purchase was recently announced by Perdue Farms, the third biggest U.S. factory farm company raising chickens.
In addition to running the Niman Ranch Pork Company, in years past, Willis raised between 2,500 and 3,000 pigs a year on his Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, two hours north of Des Moines. He still raises hundreds of pigs each year, part of the nine billion land animals a year slaughtered in the U.S. annually.
At about six months of age, Willis’s pigs are driven to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, a slaughterhouse in Sioux Center, Iowa, where they are gassed and have their throats slit.
Willis is responsible for the slaughter of far more pigs than the ones he raises on his own farm. The Niman Ranch Pork Company is a network of over 500 farms that provide in excess of 150,000 pigs each year for slaughter and sale under the Niman Ranch brand. The company’s reputation rests on its claim of raising pigs in a humane way, and its operation is considered the gold standard for compassionate animal agriculture. Among the companies it supplies are Chipotle Mexican Grill, Whole Foods, as well as others that have become successful by espousing Niman’s “compassion” and “values.”
Willis told the New York Times in early 2014 that Niman oversees the raising and killing of about half of the pigs in America that are considered pasture-raised, or “humanely” raised (a large percentage of which are raised indoors).
In his early seventies, Willis has become the poster boy for Niman Ranch. He has been favorably written up in numerous publications, including Fast Company quoted in both the New York Times and the New Yorker; and is the subject of an eight-minute video created and funded by Chipotle, one of Niman’s biggest customers.
The at-times folksy video depicts Willis growing up on the family farm in Thornton, wearing denim overalls, petting pigs who are hanging out in a large pasture, and letting his granddaughter’s chickens out of a barn. Willis speaks of himself in the video as an “activist” fighting the good fight against factory farming. It’s a good story suggesting a humane alternative to what goes on at factory farms.
“We do the best we can with raising the animals as humanely as we can,” Willis said while hanging out at a Berkeley, CA butcher shop, Magnani’s Poultry, one afternoon in early June. Willis was there to promote Niman Ranch “product” (his word) and the event, which was attended by the animal-rights group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), was billed as “Demo and Q&A.”
“I’ve always raised outdoor pigs, pasture pigs. Ok?” Willis told the audience. “Factory farming started coming in on us big time [in the early ’90s]. I wanted no part of that.”
Willis may raise his own pigs outdoors when the weather allows, but most Niman pigs live their entire short six-month lives inside warehouse-style buildings with as little as 14 square feet allotted per pig – equivalent to the footprint of a small desk and approximately the size of a gestation crate, which are now illegal in California.
David Marin of Tendergrass Farms wrote in a June 11, 2013 post on the “Mark’s Daily Apple” blog that he considered raising pigs for Niman before founding Tendergrass. He changed his mind when he learned from a Niman “field representative” that “only a small percentage of Niman Ranch pigs are actually raised on pasture. In the whole east coast region he [the Niman rep] said that there are virtually no pasture-based Niman producers.
“In preparation for this blog post,” Marin continued, “I sent him [the Niman rep] an email this week to make sure that this was still true. He confirmed just yesterday that by his estimate well over 75% of Niman Ranch pig farms utilize warehouse-style buildings with straw for bedding, referred to [on the Niman website] as ‘deeply bedded barns.’”
Is there a difference between a carrot and a pig?
During the Q&A, Willis talked quietly and calmly, only seeming to become agitated when asked about the morality of killing pigs and calling it humane meat by DxE members (including this author). At one point in the Q&A, he addressed a question about whether there is a difference between a plant and an animal, replying only that “it’s a living thing.”
Asked whether there’s a difference between a carrot and a pig, he responded, “What I believe is we eat living things. Whether it’s a plant or an animal. Some people prefer to eat just plant material, some people have a more varied diet and they eat animals and plants.” “You’re not equating an animal life to a plant life?” asked a DxE member. Willis responded: “I’m just saying people eat different things.”
The public has learned about animal cruelty occurring at factory farms where most land animals are raised for food, thanks to numerous undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughter houses by the animal-rights group, PETA; the anti-cruelty group, Mercy For Animals; and the animal-welfare organization, the Humane Society of the United States and DxE itself. The public has also been exposed via films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Speciesism” and books like John Robbin’s “Diet For A New America.” A 2015 Gallup Poll showed the vast majority of Americans believe that the welfare of farmed animals deserves considerable protection, with almost a third claiming animals warrant as much protection as humans.
But the public — and the upscale market for ‘humane meat’ — doesn’t yet know of the cruelty inherent in raising animals at “humane” farms.
Last year, DxE investigated a humane-certified egg farm that supplies Whole Foods. That investigation, the first of its kind, produced a video documenting horrendous conditions at Petaluma Farms in Northern California. DxE has mounted on-going campaigns, protesting at Chipotle restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores – companies successfully marketing under the “humanely raised” label.
Psychologist and author Melanie Joy writes of an “invisible belief system, or ideology that conditions people to eat certain animals” not realizing that they have made a choice, but rather, are simply engaging in something commonly accepted as “normal, natural, and necessary.” It’s a view echoed in a comment Willis made during the Q&A at the butcher shop, when he stated, “my contention is, if people raised dogs the way factory farm animals are raised, there would be an outrage.”
What about that? Dogs and pigs are both sentient beings.
DxE member Brian Burns asked Willis: “How about a Niman Ranch dog farm? You’d make a lot of money…What if we were to take baby dogs, [make them live in] five square feet of space for their whole lives [it ranges from five square feet to 14 square feet depending on the weight of the pig], castrate them two weeks after they are born as you do [with pigs], shove metal rings in their noses…Just as you do with pigs [sows], and at the end of six months, even though dogs can live 15 years, just like pigs, why not kill them? You can make a lot of money. And I see no difference between what you’re doing [with the pigs you raise] and the idea I’m proposing right now.”
Willis said, “Well, I’m not doing this. I’m not interested in doing this. I don’t advocate this. You’re comparing one species with another.”
But that is the point that groups like DxE are trying to bring to the public’s attention: first, that the conditions at so-called humane farms are not humane, and secondly, that it is inherently inhumane to kill an animal that wants to live.
Behind the “Humanely Raised” label
Paul Willis served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria for three years after graduating with a BA in psychology from the University of Iowa in 1966. As Willis tells it, by the early Nineties, factory farming, with its economies of scale and cheap but grossly inhumane ways of raising pigs, was driving him and other smalltime Iowa farmers out of business. So he contacted Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman in 1994 and Niman liked what he saw or, rather, tasted. In 1998, Willis and Niman created the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a network of farms that raise pigs according to Niman’s ‘humane’ protocol.
The Niman Ranch Pork Company is half owned by Niman Ranch, and half owned by the farmers in the network. Niman supplies upscale restaurants including Chez Panisse in Berkeley, grocery stores including Whole Foods, the Ritz Carlton hotel chain, Dodger Stadium, the Google campus, and Chipotle.
In July 2006, Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings, owner of the Sioux-Preme slaughterhouse, purchased a major stake in Niman Ranch, which was losing money at the time and nearly $3 million in debt. A new management team was put in place, according to San Francisco Business Times. The following year, 2007, Bill Niman left Niman Ranch after fighting with the new owners over changes in how Niman animals were treated.
“I left Niman Ranch because it fell into the hands of conventional meat and marketing guys, as opposed to ranching guys,” Bill Niman told Business Insider in 2014. “You can’t really ferret out how [the cattle] are being raised [now].”
In 2009 Natural Food Holdings took over Niman Ranch. At the time Natural Food Holdings was a subsidiary of billion-plus dollar Hilco Global, one of the largest distressed investment and advisory companies in the world. Two years later, in late 2011, Hilco sold National Food Holdings to the private equity company, LNK Partners.
In early 2014, the Nebraska newspaper Kearney Hub reported that the Niman Ranch Pork Company “generates $200 million annually.”
In mid-August of this year, The Street reported that there were multiple companies interested in purchasing Natural Food Holdings, after Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel purchased Bridgewater, N.J.-based Applegate for $775 million, more than double that company’s annual revenue of $340 million. Last week (early September 2015), Perdue Farms purchased Natural Food Holdings, including Niman Ranch and the Sioux-Preme Packing Company, from LNK for an undisclosed price. Perdue Farms has $6 billion in annual revenue.
While Paul Willis helps Niman market its operation as a downhome family farm, Niman Ranch is now owned by one of the biggest factory farms in the country. Since Niman became part of Natural Food Holdings six years ago, it’s also been under the corporate umbrella of a company that makes money sending as many as 4,000 pigs a day through its own slaughterhouse.
In 2010 and 2013, Perdue was sued by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) for false advertising. HSUS claimed that Perdue was using the phrase “humanely raised” on its Harvestland chicken packaging labels even though the chickens were from factory farms. “Perdue has simply slapped ‘humanely raised’ stickers on its factory-farmed products, hoping consumers won’t know the difference,” an HSUS lawyer said in 2010. Last October, HSUS agreed to drop the lawsuits and Perdue agreed to remove “humanely raised” from the labels, although they “vigorously” denied HSUS’s claims. In December 2014 this video showing how Perdue Chickens are raised was released by Compassion in World Farming, an animal welfare organization.
This year, Niman Ranch client Whole Foods is spending an estimated $15 million to $20 million on its “Values Matter” campaign, “PICK A CHICKEN, COOK A CHICKEN, KNOW YOUR CHICKEN,” and “CHOOSE A FISH, COOK A FISH, SAVE A FISH.” In June of this year, PETA filed a false advertisement complaint against Whole Foods for claiming to be selling “humane meat,” and wrapping the meat it sells in paper printed with the slogan, “Thanks for Caring about Animals.” Chipotle Mexican Grill has had great success with its own “humane meat” campaign, in which it has marketed itself as “Pro-Chicken” and said that the animals slaughtered and served in its enchiladas and salad bowls are “raised with care.”
Writer James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University who contributes to the New York Times Op/Ed page (and is a Daily Pitchfork Senior Editor), doesn’t believe there is such a thing as “humane meat.” Numerous examples from Niman’s farming protocol support his view.
Niman pigs are castrated within two weeks of birth with no anesthesia, a painful procedure. In European countries including Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Germany anesthesia or pain killers are now used when the pigs are castrated, and a handful of countries have voluntarily agreed to end all surgical castration of pigs by 2018, according to Compassion in World Farming.
Niman pigs are also confined, as previously mentioned, with an estimated 75% of Niman pigs living their abbreviated lives indoors with about as much room as the footprint of a small desk. (Niman pigs are killed at six months but could live as long as 20 years).
Niman protocol allows for nose rings to be inserted through the septums of sows’ noses without anesthesia. This is excruciating for the pigs and numerous animal welfare groups oppose it. The nose rings are both physically and psychologically distressing, preventing pigs from doing one of their favorite things: rooting around in the dirt.
In his 2015 book, “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals,” James McWilliams writes that there now exists “academic research showing nose ringing to be a serious welfare violation,” and, he continued, “…there’s no doubt about the impact of nose rings on pigs: it causes them pain every time they put their snout to the ground.” He quotes the RSPCA: “As well as pain when the ring is inserted … this practice leads to chronic pain.”
In fact, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), which McWilliams calls a “comparatively rigorous welfare label,” prohibits nose ringing (for which Niman Ranch lost its AWA certification). Instead, it is certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a food industry organization whose board includes Willis and Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, with funding provided mostly by Whole Foods.
GAP has a “5-Step Program.” Farms must meet the minimum “step one” standards to be certified. During an interview on Katy Keiffer’s “What Doesn’t Kill You” internet radio show in mid-2013, Willis admitted that Niman farms do not meet step four or five certification.
“The very highest steps are non-castration and slaughter on the farm and things like that,” Willis told Keiffer. “Now for us that’s not going to happen, it’s not practical. Most of our farmers fall into steps one, two and three.”
But what about slaughter? As animal protection groups will attest, there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal. Niman pigs are trucked to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company – a harrowing experience for animals who, until then, have typically never been in a truck – where they are gassed in a process known as CO2 stunning, then have their throats are slit.
It takes as long as 45 seconds after the gas is released for the pigs to pass out. During that time, some pigs panic. Animal expert Temple Grandin has observed pigs that, on first contact with the gas, “reared up and violently attempted to escape.” Grandin has written that this is “not acceptable.”
Is it possible to do the wrong thing in a nice way?
Willis was asked about this at the butcher shop and responded, “Well if you have better ideas about the slaughter process and everything, please let me know.”
Is there a way to kindly, compassionately, exploit anybody, confine anybody, put metal rings through their noses? DxE activists say an unequivocal “no.”
“I encourage you to pursue your options, whatever they might be,” Willis said.
“It’s not about our options,” a member, Sapphire Fein, stated. “It’s about their lives. These animals have the right to live their lives.”
“What we’re trying to do is do right by the animals that are raised for food,” Willis said.
“There is no correct moral ethical kind way to confine, exploit and murder somebody,” Fein said. “You’re claiming you can do something you despise about factory farms in a way that’s kind and compassionate. Can you do the wrong thing in a nice way?”
“Ummm,” Willis said. “I guess I don’t know the answer to that question.”
“How can you not know the answer to that question?” Fein said. “Your entire marketing depends on you knowing the answer to that question.”
More than that, it is a question the public has yet to bite into in any meaningful way.
Note: A longer version of this article was published on the Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) blog.
Michael Goldberg is a former Rolling Stone Senior Writer. He is an animal rights activist and a member of DxE. His first novel, True Love Scars, was published in 2014; his second, The Flowers Lied, will be published in October. His wife Leslie Goldberg, also a DxE member, blogs about animal rights at her Vicious Vegan blog.