ERIC SCHLOSSER'S expos頯f the American meat industry, Fast Food Nation, caused a sensation when it was published last year. Though it covered much of the

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Meat: the good news

Having your beef, pork, and lamb, and eating it with a clear conscience, too.

ERIC SCHLOSSER'S expos頯f the American meat industry, Fast Food Nation, caused a sensation when it was published last year. Though it covered much of the same ground and was favorably reviewed, Orville Schell's Modern Meat attracted little notice when it was published back in 1978. Americans weren't yet concerned about (or prepared to deal with) "the drugs, chemicals, and assorted garbage being fed to livestock these days" (as it was summed up in The Washington Post); Modern Meat doesn't even appear in the bibliography of Schlosser's best seller. Schell went on to a distinguished career as reporter, editor, and teacher (he's currently the dean of the U.C. Berkeley journalism school), but history may remember him more for a youthful stint as gentleman farmer. In 1970, Schell and his pal Bill Niman set up to raise a few head of cattle in the old-fashioned way: without hormones to make them grow, without overfeeding to make them fat, and without close confinement to keep their muscles slack and tender. Whether it was part of the initial business plan or not, Niman- Schell beef turned out to be a lot more tasty than the factory-farmed product coming to dominate the commercial market, and restaurants round the Bay Area learned that the Niman-Schell label was an asset on their menus. Today Bill Niman (pronounced NYE-mun) still lives on the original ranch in the Marin County village of Bolinas, and he still raises cattle the old-fashioned way. But Niman Ranch (the name was changed in 1999) is today about the closest thing to a big-time meat-packing operation as you can get raising animals by hand, one calf, shoat, and lamb at a time. Niman favors the self-effacing flannel shirt and Levi's look, but as soon as he opens his mouth, you realize you're dealing not just with a rancher but an evangelist—an evangelist with a firm grip on the facts of life and of the marketplace. Niman believes in and practices kindness to animals, responsible husbandry, and respect for the land, but he's in the business of selling meat, not sentiment, and when people get dewy-eyed with him about killing defenseless animals to satisfy mere carnal appetites, he just shrugs, says, "They only have one bad day," and moves on to the next question. The central dogma of the Niman operation—one informing the meticulous rules he lays down for other ranchers who now raise cattle, hogs, and sheep to be slaughtered and sold under the Niman Ranch label—can be summed up as follows: Nature Knows Best. Ruminants have evolved to subsist by grazing, so Niman lets them graze as much as possible while they're growing. Confinement and crowding stresses animals, so he doesn't crowd or confine them more than necessary. He's so picky about their handling right up to the moment they're slaughtered that his operation has the Animal Welfare Institute's seal of approval. All that tender loving care costs time and money, and Niman's meat is pretty pricey. A 2-pound package of Niman Ranch ground beef costs $12, not including next-day shipping; his all-beef franks and knockwurst run $8.50 a pound. But as the grade of cut rises, the price differential falls, until at the filet mignon and Chⴥaubriand level, there's little difference between Niman's and other mail-order premium meat. The same pretty much applies to his lamb and pork products, too: An 8-pound crown pork roast runs $89, but a 7-pound boneless shoulder's only $36; a 10-pound bone-in leg of lamb runs $65, while 2 pounds of shank or stew meat go for $17. KNOWING that your steer was properly fed, gently raised, and died happy might motivate you to buy a piece of him once or twice at those prices, but even the most sensitive of meat-eaters requires more reinforcement than that provided by a clear conscience. The fact is, Niman Ranch meat is delicious. You can get great beef elsewhere (at even higher prices than his), but unless you know a particularly progressive (or traditional) rancher, it's almost impossible to find pork and lamb like his. Factory-raised pork these days is as bland and devoid of texture as factory-raised chicken: At its worst, it has the same kind of elastic, almost crunchy bite you get with reconstituted vegetable protein. Niman Ranch pork isn't white but rosy, and an explosion of flavorful juice escapes with every bite. As for the lamb, it's almost too lamby for people who have never even tasted mutton; for lamb lovers, it's like going to heaven. People who don't like meat at all or disapprove of it on principle talk about Niman the way Bolsheviks used to talk about Mensheviks: By improving the living conditions of his cattle, he just gives his customers an excuse for continuing to be flesh-eaters and delays the coming of vegetarian utopia. And anyway, only rich people can afford his products. What do a few happy steers in Sonoma weigh against the millions of tons of tormented protein dumped into fast-food burgers every year? Not much, in the macroeconomic scheme of things. But you have to start somewhere. And by showing that decency and quality and economic success can go hand in hand, he's inspired growing bands of others to go and do likewise, with every agricultural product from chickens to heirloom tomatoes. Once looked on as an eccentric out of step with the times, Bill Niman is starting to look like capitalism's 21st-century poster boy: doing well by doing good. For a report on just what an uphill battle Niman and his like are engaged in, see "Meat: The Bad News." rdowney@seattleweekly.com SEATTLE-AREA OUTLETS FOR NIMAN RANCH PRODUCTS RESTAURANTS Agua Verde

Bada Lounge

The Barking Frog at Willows Lodge

Canlis

Earth & Ocean

Harbor Place

The Herbfarm

The Hunt Club, Sorrento Hotel

The Rainier Club

727 Pine

Turntable Restaurant, EMP RETAILERS DeLaurenti Italian Markets: Apple wood-smoked bacon

Trader Joe's: Apple wood-smoked bacon and "Fearless Franks" Niman Ranch began a serious expansion into the Northwest market in February. Expect to see its products at more quality restaurants and stores soon. The full Niman Ranch line of beef, pork, and lamb products can be ordered for overnight delivery online at www.nimanranch.com.

 
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