When I told my partner that I was writing a book about pork, she asked: “Does this mean I’m going to have to give up bacon?”
I spent two years trying to answer that question. I visited a pig farmer who raised 150,000 animals annually in warehouse-like confinement barns, and a Mennonite who raised a few dozen on open pasture. I spent an afternoon in a slaughterhouse that killed and processed 20,000 hogs a day, and spent a day at a boutique abattoir that handled 30, and I spoke to dozens of people in 12 states whose lives had been affected by Big Pig.
My partner and I still eat bacon, but not if it comes from a factory farm. Here’s why:
I knew that pigs were smart, but I had no idea how smart — much more intelligent than man’s best friends. Researchers at Cambridge University have shown that pigs are as clever as 3-year-old humans. Experimental pigs can be taught to play computer games. Hogs can adjust thermostats to keep their pens at comfy temperatures. Pigs have a well-developed sense of self, a trait once thought to be limited to humans and great apes. On factory farms, these intelligent creatures are kept in barren stalls with hard, slatted floors with nothing to stimulate their minds. I will never forget the chilling sight of 1,500 sows in a low, dark barn in crates that were so small that they could not turn around.
I stood on a bridge over the Middle Raccoon River in central Iowa and watched vast floes of brownish foam drift on the current. They were the result of liquid hog manure that had been washed by rains into the river. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for a half million citizens of Des Moines, who have to pay $1 million a year just to remove agricultural pollutants from their water. The same water flows into the Mississippi, contributing to a Connecticut-sized oxygen-depleted dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where no fish can survive.
In North Carolina, the once-pristine Neuse River, now polluted from hog farms, experiences regular die-offs with billions of fish turning belly up in putrid masses. American Rivers, an environmental group, lists the Neuse as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
Hog farms also pollute the air. I sat with Elsie Herring in her small frame home in eastern North Carolina as she described not being able to mow the lawn, hang laundry or even sit outside on a summer’s evening because of the stench that (literally) rains down from a neighboring pig operation. And this is no quaintly rural whiff of manure. Sophisticated air monitoring equipment set up by Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina revealed that Herring and her neighbors were inhaling poisonous hydrogen sulfide. They experience difficulty breathing and have developed high blood pressure.
For 13 years, Ortencia Rios worked at a pork-packing plant. She was an exemplary employee. But after her hands gave out, her shoulder rotator cuff tore, and she developed carpel tunnel syndrome — all because of the job — the company told her there was no work for her, according to Rios. During the past 30 years, the wages of slaughterhouse workers have gone into free fall, dropping by 40 percent. The rate of injury has soared. Human Rights Watch declared that the United States is “failing to meet its obligations under international human rights standards to protect the human rights of meat and poultry workers.”
In 2004, Everly Macario’s 18-month-old son died a painful death after being infected by bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic doctors administered. There’s a good chance that the germs that killed the toddler evolved on a pig farm. Four out of five hogs raised in the United States are fed constant low levels of antibiotics — to prevent, not cure infections — a perfect recipe for bacteria to develop resistance.
When Jim Schrier, who worked as a USDA inspector at a 10,000-animal-a-day pork slaughterhouse in Iowa, began to report unsanitary conditions such as carcasses with hair and feces on them or with cancerous tumors and pus-filled abscesses, Schrier said he was promptly “reassigned” to a slaughterhouse two hours away from his home — an impossible commute. The USDA’s own inspector general reported that there is a reduced assurance that government inspectors effectively identify “pork that should not enter the food supply.”
One bite of a chop from a pastured, heritage pig is enough to convince. Like January tomatoes, most supermarket pork looks like the real thing but possesses none of its gastronomic qualities. Good pork costs more than factory stuff, but enjoying great meat while not supporting an industry guilty of more than its share of travesties is well worth the price. But be warned: Once you try real pork, you probably won’t go back to the other white meat.
A James Beard Award winner, Barry Estabrook’s latest book is “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.” A former contributing editor at Gourmet, his work has also appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Health, Saveur, Gastronomica, TheAtlantic.com and other national magazines. He has been anthologized in “The Best American Food Writing” 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010. His award-winning website is politicsoftheplate.com, and his book “Tomatoland,” is an investigative look into industrial-scale tomato agriculture.
Copyright 2016 Barry Estabrook via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express