A Tale of Two Pork Chops: The Industrial Chops
Warning: this story is going to take part in two different posts.
These are the stories of two different pork chops: one I bought at Safeway and the other I ate with my aunt on her farmstead.
I recently finished reading Pig Tales: An Omnivores Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook. I’ve been a big fan of Estabrook’s ever since I read his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit which documented the atrocities of industrial tomato farms in Florida. When I saw he had a book about the pork industry, I had to read it. Despite his fantastic story-telling and lighthearted sense of humor, I wouldn’t say that any of his books are an enjoyable read considering the subject matter, but they certainly are enlightening. And just as it happened, as I was in the process of reading Pig Tales, I reconnected with a distant relative of mine (we’ll call her my aunt) that raises a small herd of Berkshire pigs with her partner a little south of where we live in California. It was the perfect coincidence.
The First Pork Chop
I don’t think I’ve actually ever bought a pork chop in a store before. I don’t eat a lot of chops or steaks. They’re usually a seasoning for me, like pancetta in a pasta or something like that.
I went into Safeway and took a look at the pork selection. For fresh chops and other fresh pork products, a brand called “Farmer John” dominated the shelf. There were a couple other brands for pork products that were marinated, such as Smithfield’s marinated pork loins. The only pork chops were from Farmer John, though. I grabbed the package with 2 large, thick cut, bone-in pork chops. They looked pretty good. And written in big letters on the label underneath a smiling Farmer John, were the words “California Natural.” Awesome! It’s gotta be a good choice if it’s natural and local, right?
After finishing Pig Tales I wanted to do a little digging to understand exactly what went into getting those pork chops into my kitchen. I had 2 questions: were the pork chops actually from California and were they natural?
I started on the Farmer John website. Found a lot of info on how to make “healthy” meals with my pork and discovered that Farmer John’s company is actually a subsidiary of the enormous company Hormel (which owns a bunch of other food brands like Jennie-O and Skippy). As far as my two initial questions go, the closest I got to the “natural” question was under a heading called “Farm to Fork.” It stated that California Natural products are transported from preparation to the grocery stores within 24-48 hours. So it told me from processing facility to fork, but I still had no idea where the farm was. The next clue I found was in the CA Transparency Act. It showed me that the company is officially registered as Clougherty Packing, LLC d/b/a Farmer John. So I decided to look them up.
This got me a little further. Clougherty Packing/Farmer John is based in LA. Their corporate offices and a packing facility are in Vernon, a little south of LA. Apparently there are murals decorating the processing facility walls depicting happy pigs on farms that are a tourist attraction and marketing point for Farmer John. Still no information on the actually farms. So I try searching “clougherty packing” with different terms like “hog farms” and “hog suppliers.” There’s an LA Times article that talks about the Hormel buyout in 2004 which states that they have over 300 employees in hog farms across Central California, Arizona and Wyoming. Finally. The article also states that Clougherty Packing is the most prominent hog processor on the West Coast (which is why it was appealing to Hormel, since they had little presence out West) and they process more than 1.6 million hogs a year. The article was in 2004. That number very well could be much higher by now.
Still not finding anything as to whether or not the meat is actually “natural,” I decided to be a little more obvious in my search. “What makes farmer john pork natural?” A statement from the “Pork Network” stated that the natural products were not injected with a saline solution because the Hispanic population they are targeting does not like enhanced pork products. This is what makes the products “natural.” A little more scrolling leads me to an article published in July of this year by an activist for the animal rights organization DxE, Direct Action Everywhere. Though I’m not a huge fan of some of the tactics and opinions or animal right activists in general, the footage and photos gathered from a farm that supplies Farmer John seems to show that the hog farms for Farmer John follow the same trends that Barry Estabrook details in Pig Tales. The main distinguishers of industrial hog farms are as follows.
One of the most surprising things while reading the book was how incredibly intelligent pigs are. They are more cognizant and intelligent than cats or dogs. Research into the way pigs think shows that they can be taught to recognize self, use a computer and even recognize symbols in a way that a young child might. This might sound like bullshit to some people, so here are some links about it. The first is a research article that can get a bit tedious and scientific, so there’s also a New York Times article that sums it up quite nicely. The main point is that pigs are intelligent and need to be mentally stimulated to be content.
So why would pig cognition even matter? The quality (and safety) of the meat is so much better when a pig isn’t stressed out and unhealthy. When I get super stressed out, my immune system goes to shit and I get sick. The same goes for pigs. In confinement farming, pigs are kept in small crates with no room to move and no means to move around and entertain themselves. So they just sit there, unhappy, and stress out. They get stressed out and, combined with the fact that they are in a barn with a bunch of other pigs, they get sick easier. So they get pumped full of antibiotics. This leads to a whole other slew of issues, among which are super bugs, or antibiotic-immune diseases. And because pigs and humans are so closely related, many diseases can be passed between us.
Antibiotics and Superbugs
A 2013 Consumer Report analyzed pork samples from around the U.S. (including Farmers Johns California Natural) and the results were a little disturbing. According to the report, “Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to animals raised for food. Often, those drugs aren’t used to treat infections but are fed continuously in low doses to promote growth and prevent infections that can spread in the cramped quarters in which most farm animals live.” Estabrook documents this in his book as well. The usage of these drugs ends up creating “superbugs” that become immune to antibiotics. This poses a danger to people because the bacteria that become immune are the ones that cause food borne illness such as listeria, salmonella, and campylobacter. Of the 198 samples that they tested, 77% contained some level of bacteria that are known to case food borne illness.
Air and water pollution
There are a whole slew of environmental issues when it comes to industrial pork production. Possibly the biggest is the disposal of waste. If you shove a few thousand pigs into a small, cramped location, you’re going to get a lot of shit. It’s just a fact. So farmers have had to come up with ways to dispose of the waste. Some modern farms have the lagoon set-up, which is what one Farmer John Farm in Arizona has. The pigs are kept in crates with slatted floors. The waste falls through to cement ditches below that are washed out and run to large “lagoons”. The waste is kept there for a period of time before being dispersed in a variety of ways, including being sprayed onto fields or, in the case of the Arizona farm, virgin desert. According to the article in the Arizona Daily Sun, there was some contention over the construction of a hog farm near Yuma, Arizona. A group of farmers, animal rights activists and residents protested the opening because they didn’t want their property to be destroyed. The other issue is water rights. Already low on water, the hog farm would use XX amount of water a year, depleting the aquifer. The protesting group got construction to be halted briefly when the EPA revoked their permits. I haven’t been able to find more information as to whether or not the farm opened.
Issues with slaughter
Labor rights - Oh Donald Trump. There’s a lot that’s wrong with his immigration policy and the whole “wall” thing. But I really wanna know what he thinks would happen to our food system if he just kicked out all Hispanic immigrants. According to the Economic Research Service branch of the USDA, 50% of all farmworkers are Hispanic, with around 50% not legally supposed to work in the U.S. In the pork industry, one-third of the workforce is made up of Hispanic immigrants. We keep demanding cheaper and cheaper food. Cheaper food means cutting corners. It means more pressure on the workers with lower wages. No American will take those jobs, so industrial ag has turned to the demographic that will risk their lives and their health in order to provide for their families. If none of them were doing that work, who would? Pork certainly wouldn’t be $4 a pound then.
It’s really easy to sit here and complain about all the issues with industrial pork. And the solutions aren’t simple. The system we’ve built is what consumers have asked for: cheap, lean, meat that is grown, slaughtered and processed far away from the public. They want enormous chops to dominate their plates and hefty amounts of bacon and sausage for breakfast. It’s true that the pork industry (and agriculture in general) employs hundreds of thousands of people (and makes a very few people extremely wealthy). So the solution really isn’t simple. But there are a few things we can do to make pork better for everything.