With Perdue’s purchase of Niman Ranch, and McDonald’s move to “cage-free,” it’s time for us to ask: what does “humane” actually mean?
By Michael Goldberg
With his thinning white hair and black Polo-style short-sleeved shirt with a Niman Ranch “Raised With Care” logo over his heart, Paul Willis looks like a kindly grandfather. This soft-spoken man certainly isn’t my idea of a pig killer.
But that’s exactly what he is.
Willis, a high-profile spokesman for the “humane meat” movement, co-founded and manages the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a division of Niman Ranch.
This week it was announced that Perdue Farms, the third biggest U.S. factory farm company raising chickens, has purchased Niman Ranch.
In addition to running the Niman Ranch Pork Company, in years past Willis has also raised between 2500-to-3000 pigs a year on his Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, two hours north of Des Moines. He still raises 100s of pigs each year on his farm.
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 their throats slit.
Willis is responsible for the deaths 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 a total of over 150,000 pigs each year, who are slaughtered and sold under the Niman Ranch brand. The company’s reputation is based on raising pigs in what is alleged to be a humane way, and its operation is considered the gold standard for compassionate animal agriculture. Companies whose success is based on their “compassion” and “values,” including Chipotle Mexican Grill and Whole Foods, are supplied by Niman Ranch.
Willis, who refers to the dead body parts of pigs that Niman sells as “product,” 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, though most of those pigs are actually raised indoors.
Though in his early seventies, Willis has become the poster boy for Niman Ranch, the human face of a system that doesn’t value the lives of nonhuman animals. He’s the subject of an eight-minute video, “Paul Willis Story,” created and funded by Chipotle, one of Niman’s biggest customers.
The video tells a folksy story about Willis growing up on the farm in Thornton, and shows him wearing denim overalls, petting pigs who are hanging out in a large pasture, and letting his granddaughter’s chickens out of a barn. Willis has been favorably written up in numerous publications, including Fast Company, and has been quoted in both the New York Times and the New Yorker.
In the video, Willis speaks of himself as an “activist” fighting the good fight against factory farming. It’s a good story, and it’s helped assuage the guilt of upscale meat eaters who think they have a humane alternative to the violence that 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,” and the event was billed as “Demo and Q&A.”
I was there with Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). We wanted to question Willis about Niman farming protocol, which is, in fact, anything but humane. But even if they did raise the pigs with care, there is nothing humane about killing an animal that wants to live. There were about 30 of us, and at least a half-dozen DxE members fired off questions at Willis for about 15 minutes before he abruptly ended the conversation.
DxE fights for animal liberation and against speciesism, which is similar to racism and sexism. Only where racism and sexism describe privileged humans discrimination against humans of color or the female sex, speciesism describes humans discriminating against other species.
Just as there is no moral justification for racism or sexism, there is no moral justification for speciesism. There is no moral justification for humans to exploit and torture and kill animals because they “like the taste of meat,” as more than one carnist has said. Yet that’s what humans do. More than nine billion land animals are killed each year in the U.S. alone for food. It’s mass murder on an unimaginable scale.
“I’ve always raised outdoor pigs, pasture pigs. Ok?” Willis continued. “Factory farming started coming in on us big time [in the early ’90s]. I wanted no part of that.”
Willis’s words are misleading. While he may actually raise his own pigs outdoors when the weather allows, 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.
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