Tuesday, July 28, 2015

For the Omnivores, an excerpt from Pig Tales

I'm sorry I haven't posted a recipe in forever. We've been eating the old-fashioned way, heavy on resourcefulness and fresh veggies, light on recipes and oven-use. Our home is a little warm by modern standards and we don't yet own a grill, so we end up eating a lot of salads and sandwiches and rustic hodgepodge cheese-plate-ish meals in the summer. We also take more than our fair share's advantage of restaurant patios.

What brings me to post today was something I couldn't not share, ASAP: powerful prose I encountered this morning from food journalist Barry Estabrook's latest book, Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat. There are loads of positive and hopeful bits in the book and Estabrook's tone, weight of his topic notwithstanding, is light, inviting, and often humorous. He loves pigs! I have opted to share a darker, gruesome excerpt, however, because sometimes it's important to face the facts, especially when we choose to eat meat in an era when we have alternatives.

More than 100 million hogs are raised in the United States each year, 97 percent of them on factory farms. Four huge conglomerates, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Excel Fresh Meats, process two-thirds of all hogs in this country. Those pigs are crowded in pens on hard slatted floors that allow their excrement to fall into pits directly below their feet, where it stays for up to a year reeking and emanating poisonous gasses that would kill the animals should the barns' ventilation fans fail. Even though a single pig operation generates as much waste as a small city, farmers are not required to treat it. Instead, they can and do spray it directly onto fields where it can be washed by rain into waterways.

Pregnant female pigs live their entire lives on top of their own feces and urine in individual crates that are too small for them to turn around in. Rubbing against the crates' steel bars causes gaping, raw wounds. Piglets have their teeth pulled, their tails amputated, and their testicles removed without anesthesia. To survive in such an unhealthy environment, pigs are fed a steady diet of low-dose antibiotics, a practice that leads to the evolution of drug-resistant 'superbugs' that sicken and kill thousands of humans each year. Even when medicated, factory hogs are notoriously vulnerable to epidemic diseases that sweep the industry once or twice a decade. One such illness, a porcine diarrhea virus, was first detected in the United States in May 2013. Within a year, it had killed more than 7 million American piglets.

Industrial pigs are not even guaranteed a humane death. Some modern mechanized slaughterhouses can kill and pack more than 30,000 pigs in a single day on vast 'disassembly' lines. According to on-site investigations conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General, many of those animals are still alive and sentient when their throats are cut and they are dipped, struggling and kicking, into tanks of scalding water. USDA inspectors who report such abuses can find themselves disciplined or transferred to less desirable jobs. The pigs are killed and butchered by workers whose earnings have dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s. Once no more dangerous than the average manufacturing job, meat-packing has become more hazardous than working in construction, manufacturing, and even mining.

So what's an omnivore to do? I haven't figured that out for myself yet, although this week I'm 200% vegetarian. You should read the book. And in the meantime, think before you eat the bacon! Especially if the bacon is from a restaurant or conventional grocery store (though Whole Foods and other health food retailers are by no means immune from selling products at odds with their perceived message of sustainability, humaneness, et cetera). Beeler's, at least insomuch as the Wedge co-op assures me, sources all its pork from independent farms in Iowa and states that "no antibiotics, growth promotants of any kind, nor injections of vaccines or vermifuges, chemicals used for treatment of parasites, are ever used" in its products. I cannot find any information that speaks to the humaneness of their practices.