Our food: what happens to a pig shouldn't happen to a dog
Pig Out – by NICOLETTE HAHN NIMAN/NY Times
WITH some fanfare, the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, recently announced that it intended to phase out certain cages for its breeding females. Called gestation crates, the cages virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around.
Numerous studies have documented crated sows exhibiting behavior characteristic of humans with severe depression and mental illness. Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.
Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).
In my work as an environmental lawyer, I’ve toured a dozen hog confinement operations and seen hundreds from the outside. My task was to evaluate their polluting potential, which was considerable. But what haunted me was the miserable creatures inside.
They were crowded into pens and cages, never allowed outdoors, and never even provided a soft place to lie down. Their tails had been cut off without anesthetic. Regardless of how well the operations are managed, the pigs subsist in inherently hostile settings. (Disclosure: my husband founded a network of farms that raise pigs using traditional, non-confinement methods.)
The stress, crowding and contamination inside confinement buildings foster disease, especially respiratory illnesses. In addition to toxic fumes, bacteria, yeast and molds have been recorded in swine buildings at a level more than 1,000 times higher than in normal air. To prevent disease outbreaks (and to stimulate faster growth), the hog industry adds more than 10 million pounds of antibiotics to its feed, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. This mountain of drugs — a staggering three times more than all antibiotics used to treat human illnesses — is a grim yardstick of the wretchedness of these facilities.
There are other reasons that merely phasing out gestation crates does not go nearly far enough. Keeping animals in such barren environments is a serious deprivation. Pigs in nature are active, curious creatures that typically spend 10 hours a day foraging, rooting and roaming.
Veterinarians consider pigs as smart as dogs. Imagine keeping a dog in a tight cage or crowded pen day after day with absolutely nothing to chew on, play with or otherwise occupy its mind. Americans would universally denounce that as inhumane. Extreme boredom is considered the main reason pigs in confinement are prone to biting one another’s tails and engaging in other aggressive behavior.
Finally, even if the gestation crate is abandoned, pork producers will still keep a sow in a narrow metal cage once she gives birth to her piglets. This slightly larger cage, called a farrowing crate, severely restricts a sow’s movements and makes normal interactions between mother and piglets impossible.
Because confinement buildings are far from cities and lack windows, all of this is shielded from public view. But such treatment of pigs contrasts sharply with what people say they want for farm animals. Surveys consistently find that Americans believe all animals, including those raised for food, deserve humane treatment. A 2004 survey by Ohio State University found that 81 percent of respondents felt that the well-being of livestock is as important as that of pets.
Such sentiment was behind the widely supported Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, which sought to improve treatment of cattle and hogs at slaughterhouses. But it’s clear that Americans expect more — they want animals to be humanely treated throughout their lives, not just at slaughter. To ensure this, Congress should ban gestation crates altogether and mandate that animal anti-cruelty laws be applied to farm animals.
As a cattle rancher, I am comfortable raising animals for human consumption, but they should not be made to suffer. Because we ask the ultimate sacrifice of these creatures, it is incumbent on us to ensure that they have decent lives. Let us view the elimination of gestation crates as just a small first step in the right direction.
(Nicolette Hahn Niman, a lawyer and cattle rancher, is writing a book about the meat industry.)