I hold the belief that if breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day, it’s certainly the most delicious. When I swipe into Rastall Cafe in the morning, the first thing I check is the crispiness of the bacon. Arteries be damned, I love bacon, but my health is not the only issue at stake here. Unfortunately, the conditions in which pigs are raised bring up moral dilemmas as well.
By most accounts, pigs are smart. They form close bonds with other pigs around them, raise their piglets attentively, and can even learn to associate sounds and smells with events. Pigs can learn to recognize the man who brings their food, or the sound of the truck’s engine that hauls them to the slaughterhouse.
“[Pigs] have the cognitive ability to be quite sophisticated,” said Dr. Donald Broom, a Cambridge University professor. “Even more so than dogs and certainly [more so than] three-year-olds.”
The jab at the stupidity of toddlers aside, Broom’s point brings up a moral issue of putting intelligent and conscious animals through the horrific conditions of industrial factory farms and slaughterhouses. Arguably the worst of these practices is the gestation crates that the female pigs are forced into before getting artificially inseminated. The gestation crates are roughly seven feet long, and too narrow to allow pigs to turn around or even raise their piglets. Once the pig gives birth, they are moved to a slightly larger crate to suckle their young for a short period of time. When the piglets are deemed healthy enough (usually after only a week and a half), they are taken from the mother and she is put back into the gestation crate to repeat the process.
“If Walmart executives did this to even one dog or cat instead of millions of pigs, they would be thrown in jail,” said actor Joaquin Phoenix in his petition to stop Walmart from using gestation crates.
The male pigs are hardly better off.
According to a study done by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, “In extremely crowded conditions, piglets are prone to stress-related behavior such as cannibalism and tail-biting, so farmers often chop off piglets’ tails and use pliers to break off the ends of their teeth—without giving them any painkillers.”
All of this cruelty is done for the love of bacon. Bacon sells so well that it is infused into other products to make them sell better. Some are pretty reasonable, such as the bacon-flavored mayo, Baconnaise, or bacon-flavored salt. There is a plethora of bacon-flavored vegetarian options as well. Bacon tofu, vegetarian bacon, and other meat alternatives flavored to taste like pig are all over our supermarkets. Other bacon products make one question the sanity of consumers, such as bacon-infused vodka, soap, or dental floss. Bacon is even responsible for the Internet sensation Epic Meal Time, which essentially was just a food porn channel on YouTube for people who love meat and substandard jokes. This obsession with bacon doesn’t just stop at the U.S. borders either. The United States is the world’s third largest producer of pork products, behind China and Europe. As of 2014, 723 million pigs were produced and slaughtered in China, according to the periodical Modern Farmer. That means there were almost twice as many pigs in China as there are human beings in the United States.
Clearly the human love of delicious salty pig meat isn’t disappearing anytime soon. At the very best, it’s a cultural phenomena spanning the globe, and at worst it’s an addiction that can’t be satisfied, no matter how much ham we cram into our mouths. All we can do is try to make this practice as humane as possible, and great strides have been taken in recent years to do so.
Gestation crates have been phased out of most of the major food providers’ pork production, from Costco to Target. Walmart also phased out this practice, though they did so belatedly and only after pressure from a coalition of A-list celebrities, animal rights groups, and a series of leaked videos from inside their plants.
“I think American big agriculture and the big retail food industry goes out of its way to hide what it does from consumers,” said Barry Estabrook, former journalist and author of “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Guide to Sustainable Meat,” “I think they are quite happy to have consumers being virtually illiterate when it comes to food.”
On our own campus, Bon Appétit has phased out gestation crates as of 2016, making more spacious group pens for their sows instead of their former concrete and steel prisons. So you can continue to eat that delicious Rastall bacon with a clean conscience. Well, at least a semi-clean conscience.
But just because gestation crates have been removed from the equation doesn’t mean you should assume your meat is raised humanely. As recently as November of 2015, an industrial slaughterhouse was exposed on video failing to properly stun their pigs before butchering them on the conveyor belt. This gruesome act is against USDA regulations and horrifying for any living creature.
The inner workings of slaughterhouses are more often opaque than transparent, and just because a company states that their intention is to slaughter their animals humanely doesn’t mean that they actually will. Any policy is only as effective as the company carrying out that policy, and if the workers aren’t doing it then the law is just words on a page. Just because one horrific practice of the agriculture system has been removed doesn’t mean that animal cruelty will stop behind closed doors. The bottom line is that it’s all about money. Without a whistle blower, chances are that not much will be done.
Of course, not all farms are factories. Plenty of farms exist that raise their pork in reasonable conditions, and some are growing to sizes that compete with the factory farms.
“They’re not little hobby farms,” said Estabrook. “These guys raise well into the thousands of pigs on average. It certainly can be done. It can be scaled up and I think it’s going to have to be. You can’t have an industry that goes on abusing the environment, abusing the animals, abusing the workers forever.”
I’m not saying you need to stop eating pork, and I’m not saying that someone is evil just for eating pork, but it is worth considering where your meat comes from, and maybe spending the extra money to buy from local farms. This intelligent, conscious animal will end up on someone’s plate at some point regardless of its life’s journey. It’s up to us as consumers whether we want to buy from the company that gives pigs a chance to enjoy some of the simple pleasures in life, or the one that imprisons, tortures, and butchers them alive.