Last month, an undercover investigation at a pig factory farm in Kentucky exposed rampant animal abuse and questionable feeding tactics, including feeding pureed dead piglet carcasses to momma breeding pigs, known as sows.
There's nothing illegal about that, and although undeniably gross, industrial pork producers are turning to feeding pig intestines or pig diarrhea to breeding sows to try and combat porcine epidemic diarrhea, or P.E.D., an ailment that's killed millions of piglets in America recently.
What could soon be illegal, at least in Kentucky, is the right to perform these undercover investigations that are necessary so Americans can figure out how they're foods actually produced. Industry-backed, proposed "ag-gag" legislation wants to make it illegal to shoot video or photos of these questionable acts. Certainly, industrial agriculture has some secrets it would like to keep under consumers' radar.
After the Humane Society of the United States captured footage of pig cannibalism and widespread abuse—trapping rows upon rows of pregnant pigs in gestation crate cages so they can't even sit up or turn around—industry pushed for legislation that would make it illegal to perform these types of investigations.
"The meat industry wants to criminalize the documentation of what it does to animals," says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at HSUS.
Well over a dozen states have introduced this type of ag-gag legislation to suppress whistle blowers and undercover investigations at factory farms. Nearly all states have rejected them, although there's pending legislation in Idaho and Utah to topple the laws, Shapiro says.
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The Sad State of the Pork Industry
Pigs are extremely social, intelligent animals, something that makes their current living conditions even harder to swallow. Pigs consistently score better on IQ tests than dogs. (Could you imagine making your dog lie on its side in a tiny crate and forcing it to have babies for years?)
They're so smart, in fact, that researchers have found they're able to easily teach them to sit on command and even play video games. (The pigs are able to control a joystick with their mouths.)
Instead of interaction, most breeding sows are confined to a life of misery. About 9 out of 10 sows are confined in these prison-like crates, where they are basically immobile for several years before they're "spent" and sent to slaughter. These breeding sows produce between 2 to 3 litters of piglets per year and then after that become "spent" and sold to slaughter and turned into pork products found in your grocery store.
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"Mother pigs are locked inside of cases so small the pigs are unable to turn around their entire lives. They're essentially immobilized and lined up like parked cars, treated like nothing more than piglet making machines," Shapiro explains. "It's hard to imagine a more difficult existence."
Interestingly, several studies suggest gestation crates don't save pork producers any money. Others find getting sows out of these crates would barely add significant cost to consumers. Even industrial pork producers like Smithfield and Hormel say they will move away from gestation crates. McDonald's, Safeway, and Burger King have also made pledges to start source crate-free pork.
Then there are places like Whole Foods and Chipotle, which are leading the charge to make cage-free pork more accessible.
How to Avoid Factory-Farmed Pork
If you don't want to buy into the industrial pork-producing model, we're happy to say you've got options!
•Work more vegetarian protein sources into your diet to depend on meat less. Use the money you save to occasionally splurge on humanely-raised pork, if you'd like.
•Help protect pigs! Sign this petition to let the National Pork Board know you oppose the use of cruel gestation crates.
•Look for pork produced through the Global Animal Partnership certification program, which prohibits confinement. This type of pork is primarily sold in Whole Foods, Shapiro says.
•Look for Animal Welfare Approved pork products in some Whole Foods and at many local farmer's market locations. The standards are high, allowing pigs to live on pasture. Confinement is also strictly prohibited.
•Don't be duped by "PQA Plus," or "Pork Quality Assurance Plus" claims. This meat still comes from conventional industry conditions where confinement is allowed.