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Modern pig farming, or "the pig industrial complex"

by karen dawn
DawnWatch: Harper's Magazine on modern pig farming and on vegetarianism -- May 2006
The May edition of Harpers Magazine has two articles of interest to animal advocates. In "A Carnivore's Credo" (p 21) Roger Scruton defends meat-eating with a discussion of the complete lack of self-consciousness he presumes in other animals. One of his arguments points to the "awe, reverence and anxiety" with which only humans approach a corpse of their species. (I think of some hideous war footage, tales of desecration of the corpses of the enemy, and of scenes from Hotel Rwanda, and question his argument.) He calls our pets "honorary members of the human community" and appears to see no problem with the arbitrary assignment of that position to only some animals of some species. He does however, stand against the horror that is factory farming, writing, "To criticize battery pig farming as violating a standard of care is certainly right and proper." His article is therefore a perfect compliment to Nathanael Johnson's article, in the same magazine (p47) headed "Swine of the Times. The Making of the Modern Pig."

For his lengthy and enlightening piece, Johnson visits the Sleezer (I kid you not) Fertility Clinic in Iowa, which artificially inseminates pigs and sells the piglets.

We learn that the animals, because they live in such close quarters and because they are genetically uniform, are highly susceptible to disease, so they "receive a small amount of antibiotics in their feed , which helps them fend off sickness. It's a controversial practice because pathogens will eventually evolve resistance to the drugs. But almost all modern farms use low-level antibiotics in feed: besides blocking diseases, antibiotics boost animal growth rates."

Johnson describes a barn full of sows with piglets, each sow "confined by a metal crate to an area about two and a half by seven feet. The sows filled their cages. They had a foot or two in which to move forward or back, and enough room to lie down but not enough to turn around."

He later describes the gestation room, with 700 sows:
"The hogs stood in tight formation, row upon row stretching out to the end of the building, under dusty yellowish lights. Crates held the pigs in line with their noses next to a water trough and their tails over a slatted floor. The animals eat where they stand and deposit their dung at the other end of the crate. The pig's own feet, or a shot with a hose, sends the waste through the cracks in the floor."

The article includes a graphic description of the artificial insemination process, involving a farmer masturbating a boar. You'll have to buy the magazine for that one.

Johnson then visits a pork industry conference where he learns of a problem for the meat industry, acid in pork, causing pale, soft, exudative meat (PSE) that has a bad taste. PSE is a result of stress -- the stress, for intelligent animals, of living confined in crates. Another problem is that of lameness; sows go lame from standing their whole lives on concrete floors.

Johnson writes, "The solution to this problem of soundness, as far as those at Monsanto or the Swine Improvement Conference are concerned, is to breed 'better' pigs - pigs that can stand on a 2' x 7' rectangle of concrete all their lives without going lame or insane with boredom. And if genetic modification doesn't work, technology often can provide a mechanical solution. Swine Robotics, for instance, has developed a device that removes dead animals from crates -- a contraption that looks like a hand truck with a power winch. This 'boar buzzard' eliminates the problems of poor employee morale and back injuries. On the PSE front, scientists have found they can reduce the amount of pale, soft, exudative meat by taking pigs off their feed eighteen hours before slaughter. The hungry pigs burn off their glycogen reserves, and without glycogen they do not produce lactic acid, no matter how stressed they are."

He continues:

"As practical as they may be, there is something troubling about these technical work-arounds. Bit by bit, scientific breakthroughs have emancipated the hog industry from the demands of nature, but each freedom comes at a price. Each new liberty for pork producers depends on further control, further domination of the pig. No one at the conference suggested what seemed the obvious answer: doing away with the causes of stress and lameness. But then swine geneticists are innovators not policymakers."

The night of the conference, Johnson has trouble eating his pork dinner. He writes, "I had never thought of my bacon-eating self as part of the pig industrial complex."

Finally Johnson visits the owner of the famous Niman Ranch pork company, which prides itself on allowing "hogs to indulge all their grazing, foraging, socializing, and nest-building instincts." We learn that since 1997, Niman had gone from selling 120 to 3,000 hogs (now from 450 farms) for slaughter each week. Johnson describes watching the pigs "frolic" on the Niman farm, which the owner calls "Porktopia."

We do not read about a trip to the slaughterhouse where the frolicking pigs will end up.

Though I have shared a few paragraphs, the full article is lengthy, detailed, fascinating, and well worth picking up and reading and then passing along to those who know nothing about the pork industry. Both it and Scruton's "A Carnivore's Credo" call out for letters to the editor. Harper's takes letters at letters [at] and advises us that short letters are more likely to be published.

Always include your full name, address, and daytime phone number when sending a letter to the editor.

My thanks to Karen Davis of United Poultry Concerns ( for making sure we knew about these articles.

(DawnWatch is an animal advocacy media watch that looks at animal issues in the media and facilitates one-click responses to the relevant media outlets. You can learn more about it, and sign up for alerts at If you forward or reprint DawnWatch alerts, please do so unedited -- leave DawnWatch in the title and include this tag line.)

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