Pigs are gregarious, sensory oriented, intelligent creatures. Sows and their piglets will live together in groups, rooting through the ground looking for a varied diet and seeking out curiousities. Male and female pigs use over 20 different ‘vocalisations’ to communicate to each other, including a courting song! Pigs have as many sensory receptors on their noses as we have in our hands, and more taste buds than any other mammal. Their inquisitiveness, intelligence and sensory superiority are the qualities foragers use to help them locate truffles, those extremely valuable fungi that grow deep under oak trees. (Although pigs may be the better hunters, dogs are used more often because pigs love eating truffles so much!) Pigs sleep in jumbled piles to keep warm, make nests for the birth of their piglets, and bath in mud to cool themselves and evade sunburn. Pigs can problem solve as well as dogs, and can also think in a way once only thought possible in humans and apes: they can interpret what another pig is thinking! (see Sherman, B, Sherman, O and Sharman, K, From Paddocks to Prisons: Pigs in New South Wales:Current Practices, Future Directions, Voiceless, (December 2005), pp. 8-9.)
Out of the 1.3 billion pigs that are farmed and killed each year, only 1.5% of them are farmed in a way that allows for these natural pig behaviours and qualities. 60% of breeding sows and 93% of pigs reared for meat live their lives almost entirely indoors. Many breeding sows are confined to very small crates for an average of 5 weeks before they give birth. The reasons for this confinement demonstrate the horrifying ‘band-aids’ required by a system gone mad: In the wild, sows give birth to around 6 piglets every year. In profit driven piggeries, breeding technology has managed to push this figure up to 35 piglets in one litter. To stop the sows from accidently squashing their newborns they are confined to crates in which they can’t even turn around. There’s no room for jumbled sleeping in this scenario. Although some countries have banned the use of sow crating altogether, in Australia, the allowable time for a sow’s confinement in one of these stalls, measuring 0.6 x 2.2m, is 16 weeks.
Pigs are such inquisitive creatures that when deprived of stimulus, their boredom can turn to aggression. In Europe now, all piggeries are required to distribute hay on the concrete or slatted floors of piglets’ pens, so they have something to push about for the 24 long weeks of their life. This mere gesture toward a pig’s curious nature is a world away from the stimulus required to keep a pig happy. 80% of piglets kept in piggeries have their tails cut off to stop other piglets biting them, out of sheer boredom, and their teeth clipped. No pain relief is mandatory for these ‘band-aids’ treatments. They have been found to cause piglets intense pain, for up to 15 days. In Australia there are no mandatory requirements for any sort of hay distribution on the stall floors. Most pigs here spend the entirety of their lives on bare concrete. (See Sherman, B, et al, From Paddocks to Prisons, pp. 15-18.)
And if these welfare issues aren’t enough to convince you to eat pork from pigs that have lived happy lives, consider just some of the health issues: While the industry is no longer allowed to use antibiotics as growth promotants, antibiotics are still widely used in piggeries, due to the easy spread of diseases. Through much scientific research, excessive antibiotic use in intensive farming is being linked to antibiotic resistance in humans. In the Netherlands and the US, two leading nations in the field of intensive farming, a new strain of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), unknown before 2003, is being transmitted from pig farms to humans. It is now the most common strain of MRSA in the Netherlands. (See Voss A, et al, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in pig farming. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2005 Dec.)
Not only this, intensive pig farms rely on external feed supplies that are open to pesticide and GM contamination. In December 2008, ALL pork products made in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were recalled due to tests that found pork products containing 200 times the recognized safety levels of dioxins. (Long-term exposure to dioxins has been show to lead to various cancers.) The source was determined to be an animal feed manufacturer.
Supporting ethical animal farming
Although Food Connect is not yet in a position to offer products like bacon, ham, sausage and other pork products as extras, I wanted to offer you a little encouragement to start thinking more about where your bacon comes from. One of the best ways we can make organic, free range, small farmed meat more available is simply by asking for it. Ask for it at your local butchers, supermarkets and favourite restaurants. Yes, it can feel quite uncomfortable asking questions like: ‘where do you source your meat from?’ or, ‘is your meat organic, free range, and locally sourced?’ but I’m sure it feels more uncomfortable for your butcher or restaurant owner to have to say ‘I don’t know’, or, ‘no, it’s not’. The more they have to answer this way, the more they’ll be compelled to make some better decisions themselves, about where they source their meat, based on a growing sense that it’s what their customers want.
Don’t be shy, what you’ll be supporting are farmers that are trying as much as possible to recreate natural living conditions for their animals.
One of our farmers, Paul Graham, provides free range, grass fed, organic beef and lamb. To visit his website, please click here.
Some excellent reference sites on this topic are: