Depending on whom you ask, International Burger Day occurs on either May 28th or August 27th. At Change Food, we’ve decided we’ll go ahead and celebrate both.
In May, which was National Burger Day in the United States, we contemplated The Omnivore’s Dilemma over one of BareBurger’s (free!) “Farmstead” Burgers. The vegan and gluten free option satiated both our appetites and our hopeful hearts for a shift toward a more sustainable food system. With a sweet potato & wild rice patty, green hummus, tomatoes, baby kale and avocado basil dressing, enveloped in a flavorful collard green wrap, who wouldn’t go for the plant-based power?
Truthfully, we know a lot of people who might have beef with the unconventional burger. But we at Change Food have our own qualms about corrupt industrial processes which put the crunchy bacon and melted cheese atop a juicy burger.
As conscious consumers, we’re taught to be wary of labels. What does Natural really mean? We must ask. Is it enough? As more supply chain information becomes public, we’ve learned to ask these questions and to challenge ambiguity. “Cage free” sounds great, but does it mean the animals are “free range?”
To be deemed free range, USDA website humbly requests “producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.”  That’s it?! This won’t knock your socks off, but Consumer Reports Greener Choices states that many farms do indeed take advantage of that half-hearted requirement; the “free range” animals we eat need not have enjoyed any minimum space requirements, accessibility to that promised outdoor space, quality standards of the space, or time spent ranging free. 
The wiggle room in these types of labels is more than most factory-farmed animals have ever enjoyed. It’s like telling your kids they can go play outside, then shrugging when they can’t get out the cat door. “The access is right there!” you say. Ah, but it wasn’t. And, if your home were like the farm, no one would ever find out; As Consumer Reports observes, farm inspection is not mandatory. 
We’re not here to criticize without solutions, however, so allow us to present to you, another alternative to the conventional: Niman Ranch. We want to talk about their Never-Ever Natural (it’s not what it sounds like), Certified Humane meats, and why it’s been an honor to connect with them at Change Food.
“All I had to do was to see one of these types of operations to know that I never wanted to raise livestock like that,” said Paul Willis at the Change Food Fest 2016.
Paul is a farmer and founder of Niman Ranch Pork Co., his hog farm becoming the prototype for the company vision when he met co-founder Bill Niman in 1995. Now, the company represents “a network of over 700 independent family farmers and ranchers who are paid a fair price to raise their livestock humanely and sustainably.” 
When we asked him whether he foresaw a future in which a couple of industry giants could suffocate the rest, Paul did not. “No,” he replied, “Because we’ve managed to establish a marketplace for these small independent farmers…
“I often think, what would we have if we didn’t have Niman Ranch? And it would probably be just one company, by now.”
But fortunately for the livelihoods of thousands, we do have Niman and passionate, committed people like Paul Willis serving as its backbone. That’s not to say the company doesn’t face opposition or criticism, however.
The best way to face any negativity, Paul believes, is to maintain the integrity and authenticity which has led Niman Ranch this far. “I’ve come to the conclusion that your brand, they can’t take that away from you. The cornerstone of Niman Ranch is animal welfare. And there are other companies who will say, ‘We’re just like Niman Ranch, but not as expensive.’ But they’re not. Maybe it’s an honor they want to be, though.”
These types of companies often get by on what Paul calls “welfare washing,” but they aren’t making the food system any cleaner. As Niman Ranch knows, low prices, high quality and fair wages cannot always go hand in hand.
When he was at an industry meeting years ago, Paul was approached by someone who encouraged him to become a protein unit, an operation which view hogs as nothing more than just that: units of protein. The disapproval in his voice was palpable as he explained, “There’s a difference between a hog farmer and a protein unit. The commodity world is about volume; we’re more interested in quality.”
So in honor of International Burger Day, we asked Paul where he thought the meat in the average out-to-eat burger might originate and he told us it could be anywhere. Quality? Who knows! It was the answer we expected, but not the one we wanted. What, then, are we to do on this fine holiday?
Well, in March, Paul Willis told Food Tank our biggest opportunity to fix the food system lies in “the demand by the public to want cleaner and better food. The awareness of how it all connects to public health and the environment.
“The trend is with us,” he believes, and we couldn’t agree more.