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When Big Ag Gobbles Up Small Ag Is There Any Hope for Real Reform?

Sadly, no.
A fried egg sandwich with Niman Ranch bacon. (Photo: muyyum/Flickr)

A fried egg sandwich with Niman Ranch bacon. (Photo: muyyum/Flickr)

Perdue, the fourth-largest chicken company in the United States, is a giant among giants in the agribusiness world. Recently, it purchased Natural Food Holdings, which owns Niman Ranch, a niche meat producer known for its comparatively impressive welfare and sustainability standards.

News of Niman’s acquisition was generally greeted with the big media equivalent of a shrug, but I think it warrants a stronger, more appropriate reaction: Panic.

Niman was never perfect—its founder, Bill Niman, left the company when it outgrew his small-farm vision. But still, its 700-plus farmers working in 28 states maintain relatively close ties to the landscape, the animals they raise, and even the company that continues to set and enforce its standards of production.

As students of industrial agriculture have long noted, corporations such as Perdue exploit the most vulnerable as a matter of basic business procedure.

To think that Niman farmers will be able to maintain these meaningful connections under Perdue stretches plausibility to the breaking point. Yet the New York Times brief report on the Niman purchase does just this. It suggests that the Perdue acquisition is evidence that Big Ag is finally embracing the gentler logic of small-scale, alternative agriculture. On the topic of animal welfare, it quoted (without offering a counterpoint) Jim Perdue as saying, “I think [Niman] can bring us a lot of new ideas.”

Please. Perdue’s entire corporate history is one of rejecting Niman’s new ideas. As Niman supporters have long noted, Perdue is a soulless machine programmed to accomplish one goal: Maximize production with minimal inputs—inputs such as unnecessary welfare measures. To think that Niman is some kind of Trojan Horse that will sneak in and wage war on Perdue’s top priority is, again, wishful thinking at best.

“The terms of the deal weren’t disclosed,” the Wall Street Journal reported of the acquisition. Well, of course they weren’t disclosed. Niman farmers—not to mention Niman animals—have (almost certainly) been contractually set up to be hammered down by the singular logic of industrial production. “I can’t equate humane with Perdue,” wrote one commentator on Niman’s Facebook page. And this is exactly right.

As students of industrial agriculture have long noted, corporations such as Perdue exploit the most vulnerable as a matter of basic business procedure. Consult books such as Christopher Leonard’s the Meat Racket or Ted Genoways’ the Chain and you’ll get a sober and detailed look into the underlying mechanisms that outsource the risks and insecurities of raising farm animals to farmers who, in turn, have no choice but to treat animals and the environment with less regard. Niman worked hard to avoid this race to the bottom; Perdue will require it.

Those who suspend reality to interpret this acquisition as a potentially beneficial development point to Perdue’s promise to honor Niman’s commitment to antibiotic-free meat. While this is certainly a trend worth celebrating, it’s not saying much. Perdue (as with the industry as a whole) has been scaling back on antibiotic use for nearly a decade. Today, 95 percent of Perdue chickens are never treated with antibiotics used on humans, and half receive no antibiotics at all. Making the antibiotic-free promise requires little skin off Perdue’s back.

Others view the Perdue purchase as encouraging proof that consumer demand for “all natural” meat is finally growing. This is certainly the case. But it’s also the problem—in fact, as I have previously argued, it’s the very essence of the problem.

It would be nice to think that increased and enlightened consumer demand for better meat leads to more small farms practicing more humane and sustainable methods of animal agriculture. But that’s not how it works. As the Perdue acquisition verifies, when demand for humane and sustainable meat hits a threshold, tectonic plates shift. The small guys invariably get gobbled up by the big guys and the big guys invariably gut the practices of the small guys while—and this is the really galling part—retaining their brand-name veneer of virtue.

The whole arrangement is rotten. And while I don’t like the underlying economic reality of meat production any more than the next foodie, somebody in the Food Movement needs to stand up and acknowledge this inherent economic limitation. Somebody needs to remind the movement that you cannot beat the devil (in this case Perdue) at its own game—making meat. Somebody needs to point to the fact that, when fast-growing Chipotle began to source its meat from little old Niman, Niman’s fate, and the fate of its once scaled-down methods, was sealed.

And then we can start talking about real agricultural reform.

The Things We Eat is a regular Pacific Standard column from James McWilliams on food, agriculture, and the American diet.