Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat

Pig Tales cover

I’ve been reading and enjoying a new book. Pig Tales: an omnivore’s quest for sustainable meat, was just published this past Monday. In the book, author and James Beard award-winner Barry Estabrook explores the the fate of three types of hog: feral hogs, free ranging farm-raised hogs, and those in confined animal feeding operations. More importantly, he discovers the consequences of the human relationship with each of these animals.

The first porkers may have been domesticated almost 10,000 years ago. Estabrook talks with Richard Redding, a University of Michigan anthropologist who found, during excavations in Turkey, that humans there abandoned nomadic life and domesticated hogs as a means of sustenance around that time. Previously, it had been believed that when we evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers, grains had been cultivated first, and animals second. However, Estabrook points out, pigs were the perfect partners for the change in lifestyle. They’ll eat what-have-you, and supplement their diet by fending for themselves. They’re able to defend themselves from predators. A sow can be bred every eight months or so, produces six to ten piglets, and those pigs are ready to eat in six months or so. Other meat animals are remarkably less prolific, and more dependent.

What happened? Redding suspects that hogs were destructive to cultivated grain fields when they came along. Pigs were now for the lower classes, those who didn’t have access to the land that grain requires. This was one subject of my conversation with Estabrook.

“There are half a dozen theories,” he said, on the origin of dietary laws restricting pork consumption for Jews and Muslims. “However, the well-to-do ate beef, goats, and sheep, and poor people ate pigs. It could have been a way to control the masses.” Pork was important as cities grew in the Middle Ages, he noted. Even in an urban environment, pigs owned by people without means could be left to fend for themselves.

After the discovery of the New World, Spanish conquistadors would leave hogs behind to ensure a food source when settlers arrived. The Ossabaw heritage breed was alone on a Georgia island for three or four hundred years, Estabrook said. “They developed a fat profile and fine muscle cells that chefs love, the opposite of very fast growing commercial hogs.”

Heritage breeds like this are often kept in a way they have been for centuries, allowed to roam about small farms. Large industrial farms employ the aforementioned fast growing breeds, where they’re kept in a confined space. Farming is inherently risky, as bad weather, pest, and disease problems are always in play, but industrial farming magnifies that risk. Industrial hog operations are no different.

“Every ten to fifteen years, an epidemic sweeps the entire industry,” Estabrook said. “When you have 1000 or more genetically similar animals in a confined space, it’s a perfect breeding ground for diseases to come out of nowhere.” Manure disposal is problematic as well, and Estabrook chronicles many legal battles that arose from the stench and health hazards that came from this. I asked him if he thought any progress had come from the light shed on industrial hog farming in courts of law.

“No, I don’t think we’ve made much progress. The biggest threat is the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics, which hasn’t changed.” Antibiotics are given in industrial pork production to prevent disease, but they only cause more resistant bacteria to evolve. As in the case of the swine flu, diseases jump from hogs to humans rather easily, and super bugs are a threat to human populations.

“They have hog production in Denmark that’s every bit as industrial as ours,” Estabrook said. “But they don’t use antibiotics.”

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