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David Kirby

David Kirby

Posted: December 17, 2010 12:16 PM

Pork shoulder at my local supermarket costs 99 cents a pound, but zucchini cost $1.99 a pound. Why? Because American factory farms mass produce swine with such efficiency that the cash value of a pig's life has dwindled downward.

The only way to produce that many pigs that quickly and cheaply, the food industry tells us, is to cram pregnant sows by the thousands into metal crates so small the animals can barely move. And while the technology that produces 99 cent pork may be a godsend to poor families, it is sheer hell for pig families.

The Humane Society of the United States has just released an undercover report and video on the horrible conditions found inside a Smithfield-owned sow breeding facility in Virginia. It focuses on "gestation crates," where the animals are kept while pregnant, which is most of their lives. The report and video are tough to take in, but important.

Frustrated by this extreme confinement, sows engaged in "stereotypic" behaviors, which indicate poor welfare, like bar biting and head swaying. Some sows had bitten their bars so incessantly that blood from their mouths coated the fronts of their crates. Sows suffered from open pressure sores and other ulcers and wounds that developed from their unmitigated confinement and their inability to change positions in the crate. Abscesses sometimes formed from simple scratches due to ever-present bacteria.

For many animal activists, mass breeding operations are barbaric and inhumane -- concentration camps for sows. Seven states have moved to ban gestation crates, but they are still allowed in most large pig producing regions. And banning crates does nothing to stop the mass breeding and highly concentrated confinement of these intelligent animals, who never see sunlight their entire lives.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In my book Animal Factory, I write about how farmers in Sweden have developed humane ways for pregnant sows to gestate and "farrow" -- or give birth and nurse their young.

By 1985 in Sweden, "deep-bedded housing systems" with individual feeding stalls had become (and remain) the method of choice for sows, because of their improved efficiency, aesthetics and neighbor relations, and the health and well being of the animals.

In these systems, the sows are free to roam within large buildings lined with hay. Pigs are highly social creatures, and sows have inherent rules of group identity and hierarchy. Swedish farms take steps to ensure proper socialization and reduced stress on the herd: Each sow needs at least 27 square feet to avoid stress on lower-ranked sows.

In American hog factories, animal waste drops through slats in the floor, is liquefied in a subterranean pit and turned into a rancid goo, then flushed into a stinking lagoon. The HSUS found that prematurely born piglets at the Virginia factory were falling through the slats and into the waste below.

But in the Swedish system, farmers use the proper mixing of straw with urine and feces to nearly eliminate all strong odors, and the need for manure pits. As fresh straw is added to wet spots, it helps keep bedding dry while sustaining aerobic decomposition.

"The straw-to-manure-balance provides a high carbon/nitrogen ratio, which binds nitrogen. The beds do not give off ammonia or hydrogen sulfide," said Marlene Halverson, a long-time animal welfare advocate. "Two major manure emission sources are thus controlled."

And since the waste is never liquefied, but rather composted aerobically, used bedding is ready to spread as dry fertilizer. There is no need for lagoons and liquid manure "sprayfields," with their inherent environmental hazards to the ground, water and air.

The Swedes did away with gestation crates years ago, and they do not use crates for "farrowing" either. In Sweden, farrowing houses offer each sow her own 7-by-10-foot pen, big enough to include separate areas for bedding, feeding and dunging, plus a "creep area" where piglets can sleep without getting squished by their mother. These pens are palatial compared to the farrowing crates used here.

In my book, I profile anti-factory farm activists like Rick Dove of North Carolina, who believe that factory farms are acceptable to the public because very few people ever set foot inside one. Animals are kept out of sight, behind closed doors in windowless buildings. Millions of people drive by sow breeding facilities every day without any inkling of the thousands of pregnant or lactating sows crammed within cold steel bars behind those anonymous walls.

"If only people could see for themselves what it looks like inside these factories," Dove told me. "Very few of them could stomach it." But people who drive blithely past a hog factory might come upon a pasture down the road where the horses look sick or neglected. "They will call the sheriff, and someone will go to jail, I guarantee it," he said.

"Why does a pig rate less than that? Because the pig is meat -- a food product, not a living thing," Dove continued. "It's an idiotic double standard -- you can't kick a dog, but you can lock a pig up in a small crate and take her piglets away before she can nurse them properly, as any mother is programmed to do. This is man's insane inhumanity at its worse. We are turning into something that's, well, that's not very nice."

I agree, and that is why, on the rare occasions that I buy pork, I make sure it was raised in a humane and sustainable manner (I finally joined the Park Slope Food Coop, which only sells humanely raised animal products).

To its credit, Smithfield will work with animal activist Temple Grandin on the company's investigation. And it is working to phase out gestation crates. "We are actively in the process of converting a number of our company sow farms from individual gestation stalls to group housing arrangements for pregnant sows," the company said Wednesday in a statement.

Does it cost more to breed sows under the Swedish method? Yes, it is more labor intensive and you need more space-per-pig.

But what if, for argument's sake, this increased pork prices by fifty percent? Then a family of six dining on a two-pound pork shoulder would have to shell out an additional 98 cents, or 16 pennies per person, for dinner.

Is that really too much of a hardship -- even in these hard times -- to bear?