Journalist Barry Estabrook knows how to enjoy a juicy heritage pork chop. He’ll also be the first to tell you what intelligent, sensitive creatures pigs are. “I had no idea how smart they were until I got in the research,” Estabrook tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies.

In the course of his research, Estabrook spoke with scientists who taught pigs how to play computer games. He learned that pigs have a sense of self and that they can recognize themselves in mirrors. Pigs, he says, can look at another pig and calculate what that pig might do or how it might act.

Estabrook also witnessed brutality at some large-scale pig operations firsthand. One facility he visited held 1,500 pregnant pigs in cramped individual cages. “They were like people sitting in the seats of one of those regional aircrafts,” Estabrook says. “Their sides stuck out through the bars; they could not turn around. They could not move in any way at all and that’s the way those pigs basically lived their entire life.”

Estabrook estimates that 80 percent of the sows in the U.S. live their lives in factory conditions where they are crammed into cages and fed an abundance of antibiotics to prevent disease. But, he adds, there are other options, such as one farm he visited in upstate New York, where the pigs are raised on pasture.

On disposal of pig excrement

In a typical industrial pig farm, both sows, piglets and growing pigs, they’re kept on grated floors, hard, grated floors and the excrement either dribbles or is squished through the grates into the equivalent of a basement directly below them where it sits. It can sit for up to a year, creating incredible noxious odors which also happen to be poison — ammonia, hydrogen sulfite — those are poisonous gasses. [The farms] keep the pigs alive by having these huge jet engine-like fans on the end of the barns that are constantly blowing in fresh air, or the pigs could asphyxiate.

A farmer in Missouri — it happened late one Saturday night — a thunderstorm went through and the electricity failed in his fans and for some reason the generator, which was supposed to kick on, didn’t, and when he woke up Sunday morning to go to church he discovered that several hundred of the pigs in the barn had asphyxiated in just a few hours. He had to spend Sunday dragging them out and digging a mass grave for his pigs. Interestingly, it was shortly thereafter that he decided he wasn’t going to keep raising pigs that way. …

They can be killed also if the barn overheats when the fans fail. They really are living in some sort of weird life support system just long enough to reach slaughter weight.

On raising industrial pigs on antibiotics

The vast majority of industrial pigs in this country are fed a steady, low level of antibiotics in their food, whether they’re sick or not. The industry says it’s a prophylactic measure to keep them from getting sick, other people will say, “No, the industry just does that because it does make the pigs grow a little faster.” But the end result is the same. These conditions are ideal for the mutation of bacteria … that are resistant to antibiotics, the type of bacteria that kill about 23,000 Americans every year according to the CDC. This is just the perfect incubator — you couldn’t create a better incubator in a laboratory than a building crowded with thousands of stressed animals who are being fed low levels of antibiotics every day.

On what industrial pigs are fed

It’s pretty ugly. The basic ration is corn or soy, but to that, they can add rendered pig meat, making them cannibals. They can add something called “feather meal,” which is what it sounds like; it’s the feathers that come from chicken and turkey slaughterhouses. They can be fed chicken manure, the litter off the floor of chicken houses because manure has protein in it. So there are all sorts of things that are quite frightening in the diet of an industrial pig.

On the alternative to the large-scale industrial slaughterhouses

There’s people who raise pigs as pigs, they understand the animal and they raise pigs in a way that’s natural for the pigs that allow the pigs to express their instincts, that allow them to get exercise, that allow them to eat proper food and it’s a very small minority, unfortunately, but it’s becoming more visible, it’s growing, and it’s totally different. I came to the conclusion that pork is either the best meat you can eat, or the worst from any perspective — gastronomic, environmental, animal welfare, and it all depends on how they’re raised.

I think that it’s far worse to raise a pig under horrific conditions, torture it for its entire life, drive it crazy, not kill it in a way that it’s assured a good, quick death, than raising an animal well so that it has as good a life as it could expect and then consuming it. To me, there’s no comparison between the two. … Pigs and humans, culturally, we’ve evolved together. Pigs have helped us, we’ve helped pigs, it’s what Temple Grandin calls “the ancient contract,” and our part of that contract is to do our bit well and pigs’ part of that contract is to provide us with food.

Think twice how your food is raised and under what conditions?



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