Summer Fun, But Not for Pigs: The Horror of Gestation Crates and Life in a Factory Farm

Most summer weekends, I put food on the grill and have feasts. But there is a dark side to those summer cook outs, especially those featuring pork ribs. One of the darkest stories is the story of a pig's life in a factory farm.
07/16/2015 11:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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By Roberta Lee, M.D.

The Fourth of July arrived this month. The festivities brought on all the best that summer can be including fireworks, outdoor gatherings with family and friends and lots of food. Every 4th of July and most summer weekends, I put food on the grill and have feasts. But there is a dark side to those summer cook outs, especially those featuring pork ribs. One of the darkest stories is the story of a pig's life in a factory farm. 97% of the 65 million hogs raised each year come from these crowded commercial "farms" (called concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs). Pigs who live in a CAFO are placed in a pen so confining they cannot even turn around for all its life. These pigs will have never seen the light of day and at near birth will have their teeth pulled to prevent infection from poor nutrition and self-harm. Worse still these animals will live in a cage that is positioned over a catch pen for waste. The waste below produces gas so poisonous that blowers must remove the air to prevent suffocation.

These animals will be fed low dose antibiotics to keep them "healthy" while they become the biological incubators that create superbugs, a.k.a. bacteria that will kill us. In other words their intestinal systems will become colonized with bacterial organisms resistant to every antibiotic available. We, humans, who eat the meat, handle or care for the livestock, will suffer the risk of super infection by contamination through the production process. Though we cook the meat, these super bacteria will colonize our bodies via contamination by handling. The problem has become such a medical conundrum that physicians are being warned of worsening antibiotic resistance from use of antibiotics in livestock practices in peer reviewed medical journals such as The New England Journal of Medicine. As this practice continues a perfect storm brews with a not so silent pandemic of untreatable superbug infections.

Meat packing as a profession has become more hazardous than working in construction or even mining. Since the 1980s slaughterhouse worker's earnings have dropped by over 40%. As the wages have dropped so has the desirability to the American workforce. Thirty percent of the meat packing jobs are now filled by economically desperate immigrants struggling to survive and willing to take on this risk making the plight of pig and human health even less visible.

We continue to buy our ribs, pork roasts and sausages from these commercial farms because this meat is cheap. The dark history of "farm production" remains hidden from our consciousness -- even our subconscious because of its neat cellophane packaging at the store.

I am not a vegetarian. My original justification for eating this meat was perhaps naïve and shallow -- after all it's meat from a pig. What consciousness could this animal have? I couldn't have been more wrong. A pig has the intelligence of a three-year old human being.

There is a small sliver of hope. If I was writing in 2006 I would be reporting that 80% of gestating sows and 88% of lactating sows were kept in total confinement. But in 2015, 9 states (Arizona , California , Colorado , Florida , Maine , Michigan , Oregon and Rhode Island ) have implemented bans and in 2014 Canada completely banned CAFO the practice.

However, the road for national change in the U.S. will be long. A recent effort for change in New Jersey illustrates the complexity of the matter. In November 2014 despite a 95% voter approval on banning gestational crates by an American farm poll in hog raising , Governor Christie vetoed the bill in New Jersey. Of the 65 million pigs grown in the U.S. New Jersey only has 9,000 in the state at risk. But Iowa, a key state in national elections, has 20 million pigs with 90% of them confined in gestational crates. Not only that, Iowa's hog farming is a $7 billion dollar industry. Clearly the math adds up to a lot of politics behind the scenes.

It's evident that consuming factory-farm-raised pork is inhumanity in the worst form. There is absolutely no justification for torturing an animal by condemning it to life long immobility and confinement, a toothless condition and slow suffocation by exposure to noxious waste fumes just so we can buy less expensive cuts of meat. Stopping these practices and adapting more humane and sustainable livestock production will give us meat that won't endanger human health while reducing harm to the environment.

This time when you buy your pork roasts and ribs etc. look for range fed, local farm produced meat...

Vote with your fork. The humanity you show these unfortunate animals may save your life.