For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Factory Farm page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.
You've probably noticed the recent surge in the popularity of bacon, a.k.a. "bacon mania," or "baconalia".
But have you heard of "piglet smoothies"? Or "shit eating cannibals"? Stories like these expose the dark side of bacon—the bacon that comes from factory farms. If these stories don’t make you swear off eating pork products altogether, they may at least persuade you to shop for pork that is better for your health, better for farm workers, better for the environment and without question, more humane.
In the U.S., about 100 million pigs are raised for slaughter every year. Most are slaughtered by the age of six months. At any given moment, about six million mother pigs are being raised for breeding, each one giving birth to more than 20 piglets per year, for the three to five years that they are alive.
Piglets destined for slaughter are kept in crowded pens in giant warehouses. Breeding sows are confined to two-foot gestation crates. But bacon-lovers can help move these pigs to greener pastures, and shut down the factory farms that hog more than 97 percent of pork production. How? By choosing organic, pasture-raised pork, especially from small-scale local farmers who take their "pigmanship" seriously. Or by selecting national brands that have animal welfare certifications in addition to organic.
Here’s why you should boycott pork from factory farms, and how to find alternatives.
Pork from pigs kept in factory farms, where they are routinely given unnecessary antibiotics for growth promotion, is contaminated with drug-resistant "superbugs."
What kind of food poisoning are you most likely to get from pork? According to Consumer Reports, it's a drug-resistant variety of yersinia enterocolitica, a bacterium that can cause fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Yersinia enterocolitica, which infects about 100,000 Americans a year, especially children, was in 69 percent of tested pork samples. Of the 132 instances of yersinia contamination that Consumer Reports found, 121 were resistant to one or more antibiotics.
In smaller numbers, Consumer Reports found additional bacteria that "continued to multiply even in the presence of some drugs designed to kill them or stop them from reproducing." These included staphylococcus, salmonella, enterococcus (which indicates fecal contamination and can cause urinary-tract infections) and MRSA, a drug-resistant and sometimes fatal staph.
Along with bacteria that cause food poisoning, the intensive confinement of pigs in factory farms has incubated a highly infectious H1N1 virus that set off a global pandemic of "swine flu" in 2009 which is experiencing a resurgence that is causing a dramatic rise in flu deaths this year.
In addition to infectious diseases, pork is a source of ractopamine, another drug intended (though never approved) for humans, but for which no safe level of human exposure has been determined. Consumer Reports found low levels of ractopamine in one-fifth of the pork it tested. The only human study on ractopamine (originally designed as an asthma drug) showed that it causes restlessness, anxiety and a fast heart rate. It's been banned by China, the E.U. and Taiwan.
Environment, Climate and Public Health
Hog farms are a prime source of water pollution in states like Iowa, North Carolina, Kansas and Arkansas, to name a few. Although it’s illegal for factory farms to pollute waterways, the laws are poorly enforced and violations are common. Those violations pose a threat to the environment and to public health. And because factory farms tend to be located in rural areas, the poor are disproportionately affected.
The animal waste produced by hundreds of thousands of confined pigs is typically stored in open lagoons. These thousands of hog waste cesspools are vulnerable to natural disasters. A 1999 hurricane in North Carolina that "flushed the contents of the hog waste lagoons out into the streams and rivers" was named among other water pollution disasters in a recent National Geographic article, "Water in America: Is It Safe to Drink?"
According to the Institute for Southern Studies, drinking water contaminated with nitrates from hog farm runoff can increase the risk of blue baby syndrome, which can be fatal. High levels of nitrates in drinking water near hog farms have also been linked to spontaneous abortions.
Despite the evidence that discharge from hog farms threatens human health, factory farms continue to defy regulations. For example, a North Carolina hog farm under contract with a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods (recently purchased by a China-based company which is now the world’s largest pork producer) has for at least a year been unlawfully discharging waste into a creek that feeds into the state's longest river. Don Webb, who owns property near the offending Stantonsburg Farm, complains that he can’t drink the water from his own well, go to church without the smell of hog waste permeating his clothing or even have a barbecue with friends on his own property.
In Iowa, pollution from hog farms is so bad—51 manure spills and 25 air-quality violations in 2013—that farmers are organizing to demand stricter regulations and tougher enforcement.
Urine and excrement aren't the only forms of waste produced by hog farms. Carcasses are another. The factory farm mortality rate (pre-slaughter) averages 10 percent. A recent rash of PED (Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea) in North Carolina has killed millions of pigs, most of them buried in shallow mass graves. The Waterkeeper Alliance warns that while PED isn't known to be transmitted to humans, pigs harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria that make people sick. The alliance warned state regulators about "the transmission of bacteria and pathogens to drinking water supplies and recreational waters."
Ammonia pollution from factory farms, which is responsible for thousands of premature deaths and billions in healthcare costs, is also ruining the health of our national parks. Take Part reports that new research from Harvard University shows that 38 out of 45 national parks are polluted with nitrogen at or above levels known to cause harm to lichens, hardwood forests and tall grass prairie.
Hog farms don’t just pollute water. They also use up huge amounts of it. Kansas regulators just approved a massive expansion at a Seaboard Foods' hog farm, permitting up to 396,000 pigs. Seaboard will generate roughly twice as much waste as the city of Wichita, but it will also tax the area’s water supply. The massive factory farm sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which the state classifies as "effectively exhausted," meaning it can't be used for irrigation although it still supplies drinking water. Already, the factory farm's water use has drained neighbors' wells.
Pork also has a significant carbon footprint. According to the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eaters’ Guide, http://www.ewg.org/meateatersguide/eat-smart/ eating 4 oz. of pork is equivalent to driving a car three miles.
Most people who eat pork agree that pigs raised for slaughter shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary cruelty. That includes Suzanne Held of the University of Bristol, a scientist who studies social behavior and cognition in pigs. “I’m German and I love sausage, but I would never eat pork that isn’t free range,” she told the New York Times.
Pigs are the most intelligent of all domesticated animals. Their cognitive abilities include a “perception of time and anticipation of future events.” Beginning at birth, pigs communicate with each other using at least 20 distinct grunts, squeals and oinks. This communication helps piglets stay close to their mother, whom they learn to follow around by day six. Pigs are loyal to their family groupings and hierarchies, with sows showing a preference for their own, and piglets establishing a “teat order” that reduces conflict among siblings. Pigs are social animals who can recognize up to 20-30 of their peers. Isolation from, or disruption to, a pig’s social group increases stress and causes abnormal behaviors.
These smart, social, family-oriented creatures, when raised on factory farms, endure lifelong confinement to gestation crates, even though these crates are “widely condemned as one of the cruelest factory farming practices in the world.” Wikipedia defines a gestation crate as “a metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be kept during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life.”
To get a sense of a pig's life in a gestation crate, imagine spending your entire life crammed into a metal cage so tightly that you can’t turn around, stretch your legs, lift your arms from your sides or lie down to sleep. Plus, you’re always pregnant. After being confined this way for months or years, you would suffer from infections and sores from rubbing up against the bars of your cage. Your muscles would atrophy and your bones would become weak or even break underneath you. You would have gone mad from the pain, stress and deprivation.
“Having visited, and extensively studied, examples of all contemporary systems utilized in confinement agriculture,” says Professor Bernard E. Rollin, a professor at Colorado State University, “I can unhesitatingly affirm that sow stalls, or gestation crates, are the most egregious example of the application of industrial methods to animal production … [G]estation crates come to the forefront as the worst of a bad lot. I have personally witnessed ordinary people’s response to their first experience of these crates, and have seen eminent academics emerge from a sow barn unabashedly in tears.”
University of Cambridge Professor of Animal Welfare Donald M. Broom says confinement in gestation crates “is much worse than severely beating an animal or most laboratory experiments.”
Yet more than 80 percent of sows are suffering in gestation crates. How do we stop this practice? By boycotting pork products from pigs raised on factory farms, which will force the market to produce more humane alternatives.
How to get started
• Buy USDA certified organic pork, but read the label. USDA organic certification doesn’t guarantee that the animals were raised humanely. So look for USDA organic pork that is additionally certified to an animal welfare standard. Certified Humane has a decent standard, and Global Animal Partnership’s highest levels are very strong. But the best standard is Animal Welfare Approved.
• Buy organic, pasture-raised pork directly from farmers at EatWild.com and LocalHarvest.org.
• Go vegan. Great organic pork alternatives include Fakin' Bacon, Veggie Snack Sausages, sausages from Helen's Kitchen, and Bac’uns.
Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director for the Organic Consumers Association.