Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

Face-to-Face with a Pig Killer

By Michael Goldberg


Following 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?

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 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.

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.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

False advertising. About seventy-five percent of Niman pigs are raised indoors, according to a Niman spokesman, and yet this is the photo that appears on their website.

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 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.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

Paul Willis on his farm in Thornton, Iowa.

“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.’”

Willis talks quietly and calmly. While conversing with him he never raised his voice, though when challenged about the morality of killing pigs and calling it humane meat, he seemed to become agitated. At one point in the Q&A he skirted the issue of whether there is a difference between a plant and an animal.

Me: You’re saying a carrot is no different than a pig?

Willis: It’s a living thing.

Me: Mr. Willis, you don’t really believe there’s no difference between a carrot and a pig, do you?

Willis: 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.

DxE’s Sapphire Fein: You’re not equating an animal life to a plant life?

Willis: I’m just saying people eat different things.

Thanks to numerous undercover investigations of factory farms and slaughter houses by PETA, Mercy For Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and others, films such as “Food, Inc.” and “Speciesism” and books like John Robbin’s “Diet For A New America,” many people have learned about the cruelty that goes on at the factory farms where most land animals are raised for food. 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.

However, the public doesn’t yet know of the cruelty inherent in raising animals at so-called ‘humane’ farms, and there is an upscale market for ‘humane meat’ sold by companies such as Niman Ranch.

This is why DxE investigated a humane-certified farm last year that supplies Whole Foods with eggs. 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 whose success is based on perpetuating the humane lie.

A fourth generation farmer, Willis grew up on the Thornton farm. For Willis, raising animals for food has always been what psychologist and author Melanie Joy calls “normal, natural and necessary.” Those are the “Three Ns” of Carnism, “the invisible belief system, or ideology,” Joy writes, “that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Most Americans are carnists, and have chosen this ideology without even realizing that they have made a choice.

After conversing with Willis at the butcher shop, my sense was that he knows there’s something wrong with killing pigs. He told us “my contention is, if people raised dogs the way factory farm animals are raised, there would be an outrage.”

There would also be an outrage if dogs were raised the way pigs are raised at Niman-approved farms. More importantly, there should be an outrage over the fact that they’re killed, given that pigs, like dogs, are sentient beings.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns confronts Willis in butcher shop.

DxE’s Brian Burns, who was standing in front of the butcher shop display window, behind which lay numerous cuts of dead meat, confronted Willis: “How about a Niman Ranch dog farm? You’d make a lot of money…”

Willis turned to face Burns. “Are you advocating this?”

“What I’m saying is you’re advocating this,” Burns said.

“No, I’m not advocating this at all,” Willis said.

“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…,” Burns said. “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.”

Losing his cool briefly, 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.”

There it was: speciesism, alive and well at Magnani's Poultry, coming out of Niman Ranch poster boy Paul Willis’s mouth.

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 after Niman tasted Willis’s pig corpses, Niman wanted to do business with Willis. 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 pieces of dead pigs, in Willis’s words, “product,” to 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 was 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 are treated.

Bill Niman and his family.

Bill Niman and his family.

“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.”

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms since 1991, is the new owner of Niman Ranch.

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 companies annual revenue of $340 million. This 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 is willingly used by Niman to portray its operation as a downhome family farm (along with the images on the Niman website and other marketing), 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 murdering as many 4000 pigs a day at its own slaughterhouse.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Pigs in a holding pen at Sioux-Preme Packing Co. who will soon be killed.

Perdue was accused in two lawsuits (one in 2010, the other in 2013) filed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) of false advertising. HSUS claimed that Perdue was using the phrase “humanely raised” on it’s 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.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

At Perdue-contracted farms chickens are packed into dark sheds.

This year, Niman Ranch client Whole Foods is spending $15 million to $20 million on its “Values Matter” campaign in which they bizarrely proclaim: “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 it murders and sells were “raised with care.”

During the past year groups of DxE activists, sometimes numbering over 100 people, have entered Whole Foods stores around the country (and in Europe too), lining up in the meat department, speaking out against the “humane lie,” and chanting “It’s not food, it’s violence!” DxE has also mounted a national campaign against Chipotle.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

DxE speak out at Magnani's Poultry in Berkeley, CA.

Along with DxE, other animal rights activists including writer James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University who contributes to the New York Times Op/Ed page, don’t believe there is such a thing as “humane meat.”

Examples of why the pigs that become Niman’s “humane meat” aren’t humanely raised:

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, an animal welfare organization.

As previously mentioned, about 75% of Niman pigs live their cut-short lives indoors with about as much room as the footprint of a small desk.

Although a pig can live as long as 20 years, Niman pigs are killed at six months.

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. Nose rings prevent pigs from doing one of their favorite things: rooting around in the dirt.

On the Willis Free Range Pig Farm in Thornton, Iowa, Willis himself has maintained 200-to-300 nose-ringed sows, according to a 2008 report from Compassion In World Farming.

In his 2015 book, “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision To Eat Animals,” James McWilliams wrote 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. Niman Ranch is no longer certified by AWA. Instead, it is certified by Global Animal Partnership (GAP), a questionable industry organization whose board includes Willis and Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey, and whose funding is mostly provided 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.”

And of course there is no way to humanely slaughter an animal. Niman pigs are trucked to the Sioux-Preme Packing Company – itself 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, and then their throats are slit.

It takes as long as 45 seconds after the gas is released for the pigs to pass out. And 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.”

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

Paul Willis during Q&A in butcher shop with DxE activists.

In the butcher shop, I said as much to Willis and he responded, “Well if you have better ideas about the slaughter process and everything, please let me know.”

DxE activist Sapphire Fein said to Willis,  “There’s no way to kindly, compassionately, exploit anybody, confine anybody, put metal rings through their noses…”

“I encourage you to pursue your options, whatever they might be,” Willis said.

“It’s not about our options,” Fein said. “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.” 

To see full transcript click here


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 www.viciousvegan.com.