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‘Pig Tales’ looks at modern pork production

By Staff | Aug 1, 2015


Barry Estabrook still eats pork.

It’s possible that not everyone who reads his book, “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat,” will do the same.

Estabrook isn’t a wild-eyed animal rights activist. But he does have some bones to pick with America’s methods of mass-producing pork.

Iowans, in particular, should read the book with interest since Estabrook spends a fair amount of time tromping through the state, visiting with a commercial producer, the head of the Des Moines Water Works and researchers at Iowa’s state universities.

Estabrook spent a day with Craig Rowles, a former veterninarian who runs Elite Pork Partnership near Carroll. Elite Pork’s farrow-to-finish operation produces 150,000 pigs a year in about 80 buildings.

Rowles, Estabrook wrote, pays his 48 employees about $35,000 a year and offers insurance and benefits. As part of their training during their first week of employment, Rowles issues “The Talk,” which is “If I ever catch you abusing an animal, ever, you are gone.”

While the author admitted there was none of the horrific scenes generated in videos by anti-factory farming activists, Estabrook did find “the stench markedly more profound” once they entered Farrow One, where his “stomach flipped and my eyes began watering.”

He saw sows in farrowing pens “not much bigger than the sows they restrained,” piglets in adjacent pens to prevent them from being crushed by sows and slatted floors designed to carry away porcine waste, but sometimes “caked with dung.”

Estabrook and Rowles discussed porcine epidemics, ranging from PRRS to H1N1 to PEDv, and their economic damage to the pork industry.

“One problem,” Estabrook quotes Temple Grandin, well-known animal science professor and author, as saying “is that modern commercial pigs have very little natural disease resistance because breeders concentrate on animals that grow fast and efficiently.” There is a new pig disease every five years, Grandin says, because animals that put all of their energy into pork production have no energy left to fight disease.

Despite stringent biosecurity measures, within a few days of Estabrook’s visit, PEDv swept through Elite’s herd, eventually killing 15,000 animals.

“It was a bitter reminder that no matter how industrial it becomes, farming is still a biological, not mechanical, process,” Estabrook said.

Estabrook also examines the few protections for factory farm workers who, according to a University of Iowa study, breathe in 331 volatile organic compounds and gases, in addition to hydrogen sulfide, the gas that rises from manure lagoons and can cause human death.

The author details meeting Lori Nelson, president of Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement, and how she was moved to activism when her family’s “little piece of heaven” turned hellish after 4,800 hogs moved into the neighborhood.

Estabrook also talked with Bill Stowe, the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, “one of the very few governmental officials I have encountered who has no fear about speaking his mind to entrenched powers, frankly and often strongly.”

“And in Iowa,” Estabrook said, “no power is more entrenched than Big Ag. Both Republicans and Demcratic politicians fall over themsevles to do its bidding, and even Iowa’s urban residents, the ones who pay to drink what the Water Works purifies and pumps, remain sympathic to agriculture’s concerns.”

Des Moines Water Works, of course, is suing Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties, charging the entities have done too little to prevent farm field nitrates from polluting the Raccoon River, which supplies drinking water for about 500,000 people.

Estabrook explores the concept that overuse of antibiotics for hogs can create “superbugs” that result in human illnesses.

In 2008, Tara Smith, then an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, conducted a study that showed seven out of 10 pigs she and her team tested on Iowa and Illinois farms carried MRSA, a penicillin-resistant bacteria strain that can be fatal to humans. Her team couldn’t say whether MRSA was passed on by another human or via contaminated foods, because bacteria “can be spread in any number of ways from farms to homes.”

But during a six-year period, deaths from resistant bacteria rose from 11,200 to 23,000.

“Perhaps it’s no coincidence that in the same period, the amount of antibiotics fed to livestock soared. Today, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to mostly healthy livestock,” to help them grow faster and prevent disease.

Smith accepts the assertion that low-level regimens of antibiotics do prevent infections in confined swine.

“The way our system is set up now, you probably need to use those drugs to make a profit. You maximize the number of pigs that are in there, and you need drugs to control the infections that result from concentrations of animals in small areas. But why can’t you change some of the other variables so that you can have a healthier pig facility overall and not need drugs?”

Estabrook says that option is not only possible, it exists in places like Denmark, where he visited a farmer who lives 50 feet away from his farrow-to-finish operation that produces 12,000 pigs a year.

Candace Croney, a researcher who originally thought of pigs as dirty, digusting animals, changed her mind when pigs in her studies learned to use computer joysticks.

“They say that our work does nothing to help industry’s bottom line,” Croney is quoted as saying, “I don’t buy that. Raising animals correctly is not just about meat science, or food science, or production science, but also about how that impacts their health and growth. An animal that is stressed because its needs are not being met … is not going to thrive. That’s a proven fact. But it’s a tough sell.”

She cites Australian research in which caregivers are gentle, talk to the pigs, touch them and enrich their lives. In return, she said, “it increases the size of litters and health of piglets and boosts the growth rates and productivity of maturing pigs … Even if you don’t care about animal welfare for ethical reasons, you should care for economic reasons.”

Whether or not you still want to eat bacon after you’ve read its last page, Estabrook’s book offers plenty of food for thought.

Barbara Wallace Hughes is the managing editor of Farm News.

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