Chipotle’s Sustainable Pork Producer Just Sold Out to Big Ag—but Maybe That’s a Good Thing?

Perdue Farms, a leading poultry producer, is buying pioneering meat company Niman Ranch.

(Photo: Niman Ranch/Facebook)

Sep 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Few eras in American food culture are more mythic than the early days of Chez Panisse, the French restaurant Alice Waters opened in 1971 on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California. In many ways, what has come to be known as the good food movement was born in the restaurant’s kitchen, where small farmers and ranchers found in Waters an enthusiastic buyer and champion of their best, most interesting, most sustainable products. Her reverence for the people who produced those ingredients was such that she would feature the names of farms and farmers on the menu. And when it came to beef, Niman Ranch was the first proper noun to grace the menu when Waters started serving the company’s meat in the early 1980s.

Just as the kind of seasonal cooking Waters presented at Chez Panisse has become widely popular, so too has meat from Niman Ranch, which has long been used by Chipotle for its carnitas and has become a favorite of chefs and home cooks. Now, the company that Bill Niman started in 1969 on 11 acres of seaside pasture in Bolinas, California, has landed solidly in the mainstream: On Tuesday, Niman Ranch was purchased by Perdue Farms, one of the largest poultry producers in the country, for an undisclosed sum.

The sale could foretell the beginning of an era of corporate control over sustainable meat production—a trend that started years ago with other organic and natural food sectors—or signal a mass-market interest in ethically and environmentally conscious ranching that could help to change the industry’s status quo.

“Maybe this is good; maybe this is bad,” Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of the book Defending Beef, said in an interview. “It really just depends on how they carry this out—do they maintain the protocols; do they give the farmers a good price.”

“It’s certainly not guaranteed that they’re going to do that,” she said. “But there’s a big opportunity to expand the way that we believe is the right way to raise animals.”

Hahn Niman, a vegetarian, is married to Bill Niman, who in 2007 left Niman Ranch after repeated disagreements with a management team put in place after Natural Food Holdings bought the financially troubled company the year before. Niman, who is still raising livestock at his far smaller BN Ranch, has been critical of the company over the years—but he was surprisingly optimistic about the Perdue acquisition.

“I felt I was really pioneering something, and for me, if it became mainstream, I would have thought that it was a huge success,” he said as he, his wife, and their young son drove up the Pacific Coast Highway near Bolinas. “Even though the industry laughed at me when I talked about hormone-free, antibiotic-free [meat], it didn’t take too many decades” for everyone else to come around to it.

“Mission accomplished,” he said.

Perdue, which announced earlier this year that it was phasing out all antibiotics from its poultry production, saw the writing on the wall and has made what spokesperson Julie DeYoung called a “strategic direction shift.” In addition to changing medical treatments for its animals, it has increased organic production and is paying closer attention to animal welfare.

After acquiring Coleman Natural Foods in 2011—Coleman was then a leading producer of antibiotic-free meat— “we learned additional things about homeopathic treatments and ways to feed and care for the birds that reduced the need for treatments” across the operations, DeYoung said. Speaking with The New York Times on Tuesday, CEO Jim Perdue suggested that the Niman Ranch acquisition could provide similar opportunities on the animal welfare front.

“We absolutely can learn from them in that area,” Perdue told the Times. “I think they can bring us a lot of new ideas, especially in the sow production side of the business.”

DeYoung added that Perdue is “committed to continuing Niman Ranch as a brand and what the brand stands for and what its customers and consumers expect—we’re not planning on making any changes to how the animals are produced today.”

Niman Ranch produces beef, pork, lamb, and eggs on a series of independent farms that contract with the company and are required to follow its standards. Broadly speaking, animals are fed a vegetarian diet, cannot be treated with antibiotics or hormones (antimicrobials, however, are allowed), and are raised outdoors or in pens that allow them to behave naturally. Detailed protocols for cattle, sheep, and laying hens are posted on its website.

Despite its significant expansion into what were recently considered niche markets for meat products, Perdue does not have a stellar reputation with animal rights groups. The company was sued by the Humane Society in 2010 and 2013 over its Humanely Raised Process Verified Program, which the animal welfare group alleged was no more humane than the industry status quo; both lawsuits were settled in 2014, and Perdue had to drop the term “humanely raised” from its packaging for certain products.

More recently, a video shot by Compassion in World Farming showed the sick, suffering birds on the North Carolina farm owned by Craig Watts, who raised the birds for Perdue. Watts contends that the disturbing conditions seen on his farm were not an anomaly but rather what happens when the company’s best practices are followed.

Although Niman said that one of the most exciting things about his current endeavor is that the kind of pasture-based system he’s using to raise his cattle cannot be industrialized (Niman Ranch beef is finished on a mixed-grain feed), he was upbeat about his former company’s new phase. “I am trying to remain positive, and I think it could turn out well for the consumer,” he said.

Hahn Niman said she saw the purchase in terms of a divide in the sustainable food moment. While some advocate solely for small-scale, know-your-farmer-type production as the only solution, she said her husband is “not just interested in feeding a few people in his community. He’s really interested in making it feasible for this to become the mainstream way that meat is raised.” Perdue’s purchase of Niman Ranch could be another step toward making that happen.