Did anyone see the Op-Ed in yesterday's NYT entitled "Don't Presume to Know a Pig's Mind"? How relevant to all I've been thinking about even more than usual lately. Blake Hurst, the writer, used to be a hog farmer and now grows corn and soybeans (hmm...wonder how that switch occurred? Farm Bill and what it subsidizes, anyone?) and is the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. In essence, he seems to be mocking Chipotle's claim to use "happier pigs" in the food they serve, saying they don't tell us how such porcine happiness is measured. Because the "end result is a plate" for pigs headed to the slaughterhouse anyway (his quote, definitely not mine), Mr. Hurst feels that Chipotle's message is pernicious, costing hog farmers money because they have to comply with new calls to treat the animals better. For example, no more gestation crates. These are basically prisons which hold pregnant sows in place so that their food intake can be monitored; otherwise, they eat more than other pigs and can be aggressive about it. Um, having been pregnant twice, I can tell you that A) I definitely ate more than usual and probably more than my non-pregnant friends, B) I was definitely aggressive about said eating because when hunger pangs strike a pregnant gal, watch the freak out, and C) being pregnant is not real comfortable; if I'd been unable to move -like, at all!- I would have gone batshit.
Obviously humans and pigs aren't the same, but pigs aren't stupid; in fact, they're known to be bright, social and playful, and in my humble opinion, it makes perfect sense that any pregnant animal is going to try to consume more food because she is growing another animal inside her and that it would be stressful to not be able obtain such a basic need. Let me be clear about these gestation crates too; they aren't just small, they're miniscule. Several years ago, the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed suit against Corcpork, California's largest industrial pork farming operation, asserting that the crates they used violated anti-cruelty laws because: they were so small that "that the sows’ bodies are permanently forced into the bars at either end. These mothers spend virtually their entire lives pushed into hard, cold metal, with hard concrete floors beneath them, without relief. These highly intelligent and sensitive animals cannot turn around. They cannot scratch. They cannot walk even one foot forward or backward. They are locked in these crates without the ability to engage in any of a pig’s natural activities. All the while, they are forced to endure a constant cycle of pregnancy followed almost immediately after giving birth by impregnation, until their tired bodies finally give out (ALDF website)."
Corcpork backed down and promised to phase out the use of these pens.
Back to the article from yesterday. Reading through Chipotle's website, you'll easily find an entire section on their Food With Integrity mission which is much more substantive than simply writing about how happy their animals are before they head into a burrito. For one, Chipotle, as we all should be, seem sincerely concerned about the rampant overuse of antibiotics in farmed animals: "According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, American pork producers use over 10 million pounds of antibiotics per year to keep their confinement raised pigs from getting sick. That's more than an estimated three times the amount used to treat all human illness." Gross and unnecessary if you don't force pigs into pens where disease breeds.
As well, how often do you read about the deleterious effects of stress and stress hormones on the human body? I find it exceedingly anthropocentric that we would not presume the same to be true for animals, and as such, why would we treat them in ways that could make the meat we then intend to eat less healthy? Chipotle seems to care about this too, hence the "happier pigs" claim.
Look, the agricultural-industrial complex in this country is a monolith with huge amounts of lobbying, money and power behind it. It doesn't want transparency, traceability or accountability because all of those undermine the bottom line of profit. "Farms" can slap the label of natural, free-range and other feel-goods on their products with ease, too often because those claims mean little to nothing. Chipotle's website makes me feel better, but who knows how much is really accurate? Words are easy. In this context, it's incredibly hard to really find out where your food is coming from, how it's been treated, grown, produced, cared for. Even at high-end, socially conscious stores like Whole Foods, the options for truly free-range, REAL chicken are few. The Whole Foods and Kosher Valley labels are rated 2, the second lowest mark (the scale goes up to 5+). 2 signifies nothing more than that an "enriched environment" was provided to the chickens. This does NOT include "enhanced outdoor access" (step 3), pasture-centeredness (step 4), or animal centered: bred for the outdoors (step 5). Can you believe that? You have to get to 5 to obtain an animal bred for the outdoors?
I find it really disheartening, disillusioning and sad. More to come.