Pigs rooting, cattle grazing—how Bill Niman set out to redefine the "natural" in "natural meat"

Pigs rooting, cattle grazing-how Bill Niman set out to redefine the "natural" in "natural meat"

Barbecued spareribs and juicy steaks hot off the grill are all-American pleasures, iconic dishes on our national table. Americans appreciate good meat, eat a lot of it, and expect it to be abundant and low in price. Yet, few hungry diners cutting into a thick pork chop think much about their dinner's back story: who raised that hog, where and how?

But there is a story, and it's often not pretty. Getting cheap meat to our table takes an enormous environmental and social toll, damaging the health of our water, air and soil and the fabric of our rural communities. If you have ever driven by a crowded, smelly cattle feedlot or heard about hogs raised in confinement, you might have been tempted to give up meat entirely. But conscientious omnivores are finding alternatives among growers who raise meat responsibly and humanely.

Going Beyond "Natural"

Enter Bill Niman, a California cattle rancher and the founder of Niman Ranch, an alliance of farmers and ranchers, which produces top-quality beef, lamb and pork while helping sustain family farms, dual goals that the company achieves in an environmentally sensitive and humane manner.

Niman began raising hogs and a few cattle on 11 acres in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, in the early 1970s. He sold the meat to friends and neighbors, and demand grew one pig at a time. By the early 1980s, he had several prominent Bay Area restaurant customers-Chez Panisse and Zuni Café among them-and a reputation for producing quality meat. Eventually, the company grew into a network of sheep and cattle ranchers in the western states, all of whom agree to follow Niman Ranch protocols in their operations. A separate business established in 1998, the Niman Ranch Pork Company, runs a bit more like a traditional cooperative and is half-owned by the 450 family farmers who supply it.

Niman Ranch is not alone in the natural-meat business, of course. The niche is booming and will continue to grow with every scare about mad-cow disease. But Niman argues that the term "natural" is so overused and liberally defined in the meat world that it is virtually meaningless and even misleading.

The USDA requires only that meat labeled "natural" contain no artificial ingredients, colorings or chemical preservatives and be "minimally processed"-a phrase open to wide interpretation. In practice, meat producers commonly use the term to refer to meat raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.

To Niman, the USDA requirements are "just the bare minimum."

"I think ‘natural' should also mean that the animal is allowed to live a reasonably natural life," he says. "One in which it can express its instincts."

For pigs, that means being able to root in dirt, wallow in mud and construct their own nests for birthing. For cattle, it means being raised on pasture until maturity. And for cattle, sheep and pigs, it means that mothers can remain with their young instead of being separated soon after birth-a common practice on so-called factory farms. A natural system would also allow cattle, sheep and pigs to live in groups, in keeping with their deeply rooted herding instinct. "A pig alone is very sad," says Phyllis Willis, an Iowa hog farmer who is part of the Niman Ranch network.

"I've never heard anyone from any other company define ‘natural' this way," admits Niman, "but it seems important to consider the way an animal lives when you say the meat that comes from it is ‘natural.' How can antibiotic-free pork from a pig that was raised in a metal confinement building be called ‘natural'?"

Some of the practices used by some natural-meat producers would probably surprise consumers, says Niman. Many so-called ‘natural beef' producers feed cattle a high-protein petroleum by-product called urea when the grass is poor or as a feedlot supplement. Cattle in some "natural" beef programs never eat a blade of grass or taste their mother's milk. "I feel confident that no consumer of ‘natural beef' would consider that ‘natural,'" says Niman.

The standard treatment

At the typical factory hog farm, sows are isolated in crates not big enough for them to turn around in. They can't walk, root or interact with a group, as these social animals instinctively seek to do. They spend their entire lives on a slatted floor over a cement pit that collects their waste.

When they are ready to farrow, or give birth, they are moved into special crates with side nooks where the newborn piglets can get out of the way of their hefty mothers. The sows have no straw or other nesting material, which they would gather if they were not confined. Observers say it is heartbreaking to watch them paw the bare floor as if trying to build a nest. In the "finishing" buildings, where hogs are raised to market weight, they have little room for free movement.

Confinement buildings concentrate a lot of hogs on a little land. This imbalance creates problems when it comes to waste disposal. Standard procedure is to liquefy the waste and apply it to neighboring farms, but there isn't enough farmland around some of these vast operations to absorb the nutrients. Nutrient overload can contaminate groundwater and well water, and also stormwater runoff, which can then pollute rivers and streams.

Modern beef-industry practices, too, tend to stray from nature's path. Ideally, cattle are matured on pasture and "finished" on grain to produce the well-marbled meat that consumers prize. But because cattle gain weight more quickly on grain, the industry has taken to putting ever-younger cattle in feedlots, before their digestive tracts have matured enough to digest grain. These days, most cattle are barely weaned and may be only six months old when sent to the feedlot. They have trouble digesting the grain diet and need antibiotics to survive.

In contrast, Niman Ranch cattle live on grass or hay as long as possible and don't see the feedlot until they are at least a year old. By then, they can handle a food ration that includes ever-increasing amounts of grain, and they don't need antibiotics because they stay stress-free and healthy.

Antibiotics are so common in the livestock industry today that many people in the business believe they are a necessity. Animals fed antibiotics reach market weight faster, saving money on feed and labor. These antibiotics also curb the illnesses that could rage through an overcrowded feedlot or hog confinement building.

Plenty of scientific evidence suggests that overuse of antibiotics contributes to the rise of resistant bacteria, which could make these invaluable drugs less useful for both humans and animals.

Niman Ranch does believe in treating animals with antibiotics, but only when the animals are sick. Only about 1 percent of the company's cattle receive antibiotics each year, a statistic which Niman says proves that animals raised in the right conditions by skilled people rarely need these drugs.

A Sustainable Solution

For a better model for the future, consider Paul Menke's farm near Clear Lake, Iowa. In December 1998, when the hog market crashed because of a surplus supply, Menke's pasture-raised hogs fetched 11 cents a pound-a record low for him and a loss of $50 per pig. A farmer for 30 years, Menke vowed he would never be in that vulnerable position again.

Today, Menke is a Niman Ranch farmer, raising about 1,200 pigs a year for the company. Like others in the Niman Ranch network, he adheres to a strict code of sustainable practices and, in return, receives a sweet premium for his hogs. Even in a down market, he'll receive a guaranteed floor price above his cost of production. And if his hogs score highly in the company's quality tests, he earns a bonus.

Menke's hogs live outdoors, as hogs always did until recent times. They can root in warm earth, amble through tall grasses, wallow in a mudbath or loll in the shade. For a hog, that's the good life. When it's time to farrow, the sows move into spacious wooden huts with plenty of chopped straw and hay for a nest. It's the one time they like to be alone.

On Menke's farm, manure is viewed as a valuable resource, an essential element of a sustainable agricultural cycle. It decomposes in place where the hogs pasture, fertilizing next year's crops and improving soil tilth (the ability to nourish new growth). Menke grows his own feed crops and grinds his hogs' meals fresh every day. His ration smells sweet, wheaty and nutritious, like the freshest whole-grain breakfast cereal.

The restaurant chefs and home cooks who purchase Niman Ranch meat know they can buy cheaper meat elsewhere. Yet Niman Ranch products are raised in a way that makes for "a totally different taste," says Marsha McBride, the chef owner of Berkeley's Café Rouge, a restaurant and meat market. She discovered the brand when working at Zuni Café, 20 years ago. "I've used them my whole professional life," she says.

McBride is part of a growing contingent of enlightened consumers who feel that artificially cheap food has hidden costs. It degrades our environment and diminishes our food security by driving farmers like Paul Menke out of business.

The major thrust of themodern meat industry is to lower the cost of production, which rarely favors farmers. The corporate giants that own America's factory farms don't pay for the air and water they foul. Niman Ranch, by comparison, offersa more sustainable template for the future, a business model that considers environmental and social costs in the bottom line.

If others in the meat industry applied these higher standards to their animals and farmers, meat would indeed be more expensive, at least in the short run. But it is a price many are willing to pay nowadays.

Click here to purchase The Niman Ranch Cookbook.