Nimans fight blanket recall

Christopher Peak
Bolinas rancher Bill Niman, who left the company he founded to pursue more ethical practices in raising grass-fed beef, says he stands to lose more than $300,000 if the U.S.D.A. does not exempt him from a mass recall of cattle slaughtered in Petaluma last year.
02/20/2014

If there is one steak you can trust in a marketplace dominated by factory farming, it comes from Bill Niman’s 800-acre ranch in Bolinas.  The owner of BN Ranch, Mr. Niman has toiled for decades to set the highest standards in the beef industry, verifying the source of all his cattle, spurning antibiotics and growth hormones and overseeing each animal’s slaughter and butchering.

But no matter how many precautions Mr. Niman has taken, the United States Department of Agriculture has condemned his meat—and the grass-fed beef from almost every ranch in West Marin—as “unsound, unwholesome or otherwise… unfit for human food” in a recall earlier this month of 8.7 million pounds of beef products. The recall treats the highest-quality beef from BN Ranch browned into a sirloin roast at Chez Panisse as a health hazard equal to ground beef from spent dairy cows blended for frozen Hot Pockets Philly Steak & Cheese. 

After the Nimans contacted political representatives and U.S.D.A. employees, the agency began a review to determine whether certain producers could be exempted from the recall, Bill’s wife, Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and rancher, said.

The recall of an entire year’s worth of beef processed at the Bay Area’s last major slaughterhouse facility, Rancho Feeding Corporation in Petaluma, was initiated because “diseased and unsound animals” were processed without any—or at least, without a full—inspection, the U.S.D.A. maintains. The blanket recall enlarged a January recall of just one day’s meat and was followed closely by an investigation into criminal charges against Rancho.

Mr. Niman slaughtered 426 cattle last year, all at Rancho Feeding. Since he harvests seasonally, a large stock of that meat remains undistributed in a freezer in Richmond, as a means to extend market availability. If the meat is condemned and Rancho does not reimburse him, he will lose roughly 100,000 pounds of beef, estimated conservatively to be worth $300,000 or $400,000, Mr. Niman said.

“This is an example of where people in the middle category are the hardest hit,” Ms. Hahn Niman said. “If you are a really small farmer or rancher, a couple of cattle went through the slaughterhouse a few months back. Maybe a few pieces are left in the freezer. It’s probably manageable. It’s not such a big amount. And if you are a giant corporate entity, you have investments elsewhere. You have insurance. It’s not going to bankrupt you. 

“We are talking about quite a large amount of meat affected, a huge percentage of the business that we do,” she continued. “Bill’s initial thought was, we just have to close the doors here. He really thought this was going to be the end of BN Ranch.”

Mr. Niman arrived at the slaughterhouse at 6 a.m. the first business day after the recall announcement to question a U.S.D.A. veterinarian about the threat to his customers. He explained BN Ranch’s precautions for slaughter to the veterinarian in detail: Mr. Niman or his employee Don McNab personally loads the cattle onto the trucks bound for Petaluma and supervises the unloading into the pens where they are kept overnight. Mr. McNab arrives early on the day of slaughter to check the cattle, and once slaughter begins, he leads them to the “knock box,” the concrete, high-walled enclosure where the animal is stunned, rendering it unconscious before its neck is cut. Mr. McNab continues to monitor the carcass as it is processed, following an animal until it is placed into the final cooler. His presence also verifies that the meat is fully inspected by the U.S.D.A., Mr. Niman said.

“With so much time, money and care put into each animal, we would be loath to leave anything to chance during the last few hours of their lives,” the Nimans said. 

Mr. Niman told the veterinarian that his process ensured there would be no commingling of his meat with a diseased cow, and that even if there somehow was, it would have become instantly clear when the meat was inspected a second time at the U.S.D.A.-monitored butcher BN Ranch uses. The veterinarian allegedly said, “Yes, of course.”

Mr. Niman told the veterinarian his highest priority was ensuring the health of his customers, so he pointedly asked whether he should be concerned about people eating his meat.

“If what you say is true and the meat couldn’t be commingled, it probably wouldn’t be a threat,” the veterinarian allegedly said. “I agree with you, but I can’t make that decision.”

The Light called the veterinarian’s office to confirm the story, but a secretary directed inquiries to a media spokesperson in Washington, D.C. An email sent directly to the veterinarian Tuesday was not answered. But shortly after the email was sent, Stacy Kish, a U.S.D.A. spokeswoman, made an unsolicited call to the Light.

“Due to the ongoing Office of Inspector General investigation’’—the inquiry into potential criminal wrongdoing—“we cannot comment on any events that are currently going on,” Ms. Kish said. When asked how an uninspected carcass could have received a mark of federal inspection, she said, “Again, I can’t comment on procedural issues.” When told the question was not specific to Rancho Feeding, Ms. Kish told this reporter to “have a good night” and hung up.

The U.S.D.A. has repeatedly declined to elaborate on the basis for alleging “diseased” animals entered the marketplace. The recall is listed as a Class I health hazard, indicating “reasonable probability” of “serious, adverse health consequences or death.” To date, there has not been a single reported illness.

For Mr. Niman, the irony of losing a year’s worth of meat due to improper inspection is particularly bitter. He left Niman Ranch, Inc., because he felt his guiding principles were being weakened or outright abandoned for financial reasons. Prime among those principals was his insistence that an employee accompany each animal to the slaughterhouse’s stunning area. 

“Bill… believed that this was the best way to ensure the animals were never mistreated and felt no anxiety or fear,” Ms. Hahn Niman wrote in her 2009 memoir “Righteous Porkchop.” “The new management team considered this long-standing practice unnecessary and it was soon suspended.”

He resumed the practice of personally attending each slaughter or sending an employee in his stead at the new operation.

 “We’ve been very happy working with Rancho. They do an excellent job,” Mr. Niman said. “You might not know from the outside how clean and well-run things are on the inside.” 

On one occasion, U.S.D.A. inspectors at the butcher returned some of his beef they had tested, not because it was diseased, but because it had no trace of bacteria in it. “They thought the test was wrong because it came up so clean,” Mr. Niman continued. “It came out the same the next time. That’s an indication of how careful our system is.”

Fears of the plant itself being contaminated also don’t make sense, Ms. Hahn Niman said, because the Rancho was allowed to reopen after a two-week suspension in January. The most recent closure was undertaken voluntarily, the plant’s managers said.

“The government should have never condemned the grass-fed animals. That’s the fact. They didn’t even research how they were harvested,” Bob Singleton, the plant’s co-owner said. “They’ve blown it out of perspective, and there’s no reason for it.”

For Ms. Hahn Niman the “especially abhorrent” aspect of losing the beef would not be the harm to their finances or her husband’s reputation, but killing all the animals only to have the meat destroyed.

“This whole approach [of a blanket recall] sends a bad message to the general public and to the ranchers,” she said. “It tells them it doesn’t matter what care you took. It doesn’t make a difference.”