1. Most Pork Products Are Contaminated With Disease-Causing Bacteria
In late 2012, Consumer Reports magazine purchased 240 whole and ground pork products and tested them for the presence of disease-causing bacteria. The results: 83 percent tested positive for E. coli, staph, Salmonella, and a bacterium called Yersinia enterocolitica, which can cause fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, all at levels that could make you sick. And 69 percent of those samples harbored bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics used to treat human infections. (Ever wonder How Dirty Is the Meat YOU'RE Eating?)
Why are all those disease-causing bacteria there? Factory-farmers who raise pigs or poultry or beef and dairy cattle, gobble up 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 67 percent of human diseases are of animal origin, and "there are a number of specific studies that have linked antibiotics in animals to drug-resistant human infections," says Robert Martin, director of food system policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future.
2. Antibiotics Fed To Animals Are Completely Unnecessary
Hog farmers rely on antibiotics to fatten up their animals (and to ward off diseases that proliferate in filthy factory-farm conditions). Yet Steve Dritz, DVM, PhD, swine specialist at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has found over the years that antibiotics don't even work well to fatten up pigs. He's found that when pigs are raised in clean, sanitary conditions, they actually get to market weight faster than when they're crammed into the inhumanely filthy pens used by the majority of American hog producers and are injected full of drugs. And he now tries to spread the message to producers that using antibiotics is expensive and offers very little payoff.
3. Pork Could Possibly Be The Cruelest Food You Eat
Pigs are intelligent creatures that can express and feel emotion, yet like all mass-produced animals, they're shoved into cramped, dirty spaces, where frustration drives them to bite one another's tails and ears off. Their pens are so tightly packed that the animals can barely turn around. Pregnant pigs are confined to gestation crates, which increases their risk of urinary tract infections, lameness, and weakened bones. Veterinarians also see behaviors in these confined sows that are indicative of depression and emotional trauma, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The good news is that a growing number of food chains, including McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and, most recently, Papa John's Pizza chain, are refusing to purchase pork from producers that use gestation crates, but a number of large producers continue to use them.
4. Pig Waste Lagoons Exist, + Are Among the Most Toxic Places On Earth
In a very unsettling exposé on Smithfield Foods—the largest pork producer in the U.S.—that ran in a 2006 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, a reporter was able to visit the massive concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) operated by the company. What he found was vile: Some of the largest hog operations house 500,000 pigs under a single roof and generate 26 million tons of excrement and waste each year. That waste is dumped into lagoons outside the factories, lagoons that overflow during heavy rains or simply when they get too full. The waste is saturated with drug residues, ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals, along with anything and everything that comes out of a hog house, including stillborn piglets. These operations commit repeated violations of the Clean Water Act; the Environmental Protection Agency has cited Smithfield alone thousands of times. And now that a Chinese conglomerate has bought Smithfield Foods, you can expect that number to grow, as Mark Bittman wrote in a recent editorial. The massive conglomerate will put out more pork to feed China's growing population, while leaving "great big stinking piles of manure" for American cities to deal with, he writes.
5. These Vile Farms Are Making You Stressed Out + Sick
Those massive stinking piles of manure are more than just disgusting and toxic. They poison nearby communities. A 2012 study by researchers at the University of North Carolina (the state where Smithfield is headquartered and where 10 million hogs are raised in confinement) found that people exposed to bad stenches associated with factory pig-farming were more likely to experience acute high blood pressure, a risk factor for chronic hypertension, as well has higher stress levels. And that's not all. Pig excrement is frequently sprayed on corn and soy fields near CAFOs as a way of dealing with the excess waste, and a study from 2013 found that people living near a concentrated pig farm, or even near a field that had been fertilized with waste, had a 38-percent increase in the risk of contracting MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, or another soft-tissue infection than people who didn't leave near one of these operations.
6. U.S. Pork Is Banned In Some Countries, Thanks To Heavy Use Of A Drug Called Ractopamine
Here's an ironic fact: The very U.S. pork that just came under ownership of a Chinese company can't even be sold in China. That's because Smithfield and other U.S. pork producers dose hogs with a drug called ractopamine, which, like antibiotics, is used to speed growth. Because of the drug's iffy safety record, pork from hogs dosed with it is banned in 160 countries, including China. While it's given to 60 to 80 percent of pigs raised in the U.S., there's been only one study evaluating its health effects in humans—involving a whopping six men, mind you—and that study found that ractopamine may cause restlessness, anxiety, and elevated heart rates in humans. Smithfield has pledged to make half of its pork ractopamine-free by June 2014, but Bittman points out that that pork will likely be exported to China. So, again, Americans get stuck with a big mess of pig waste and we don't even benefit from drug-free pork.
7. Most Commercial Pork Comes From A Weird, Franken-Animal
Factory-farmed pigs haven't gotten to the point of being cloned in a lab, but they are the result of years of selective breeding to make them grow faster, and grow leaner, than heritage breeds, with producers even going so far as to add more ribs and vertebrae so that they can get more meat per pig than they did 70 years ago. Not only do these modern breeds have less fat (lard contains almost as much monounsaturated fat as olive oil), but the lack of genetic diversity means that an illness or change in climate could wipe out an entire herd.
8. Eating Processed Pork Makes You Sadder
After reading everything about how pigs are raised, it's understandable you might be a little depressed. But all the processing aids used in the most popular cuts of pork—ham, sausage, bratwursts, and the like—can compound the problem. The sugar, salt, and nitrate preservatives used in these products can trigger low moods, migraines, and even swollen ankles, writes Drew Ramsey, MD, coauthor of The Happiness Diet. Pork meat is very perishable, so it's more likely that you'll eat processed pork filled with these depressing additives than fresh, unadulterated pork. (It's not just pork! Avoid these other 10 Foods That Can Wreck Your Mood.)
9. Organic, Pastured Pork Has Higher Levels Of Heathy Fatty Acids
Healthy animals produce healthy meat, and pork is no exception. All animals, whether pigs, chickens, or cattle, that eat diets high in grass and forage have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and heart-healthy conjugated linoleic acid than confined animals. Those confined animals, on the other hand, feed on a no-grass diet heavy on genetically modified (and nutrient-poor) soy and corn. The stress of confinement lowers levels of B vitamins, zinc, iron, and other vital antioxidants in their systems, writes Dr. Ramsey. Pigs that forage outdoors in the sun also produce fat that has higher levels of vitamin D than factory-farmed pigs, and in fact, before pork became a factory product, lard was the primary source of vitamin D in the American diet, he notes.
10. "Natural" Is Killing The Organic Meat Market
So why can't you find more organic pork? The demand just isn't there. "People became satisfied with 'natural' meat and haven't made the leap over to organic," says George Siemon, CEO of the organic meat company Organic Prairie. "We have a natural meats market that's very aggressive," he adds. People buy it, assuming that "antibiotic-free" or "hormone-free" labels, or even just knowing meat is local, provides them with an equally healthy product as organic at a cheaper price, and that's simply not true in every case, he says. While organic certification has taken criticism for not enforcing animal welfare standards like access to pasture, Siemon says that recent reforms have made organic certification "a more humane standard." Plus, you get meat without drugs and without GMOs. Organic is a win-win.