A La Carter

Oink Naturel: The Real Way To Raise Pigs And Eat Pork

Sylvia Carter

May 15, 2002

Pork just doesn't taste as good as it used to.

The other day, I had some bacon that tasted the way bacon once did, and the way it could taste again. I ate it at the new Manhattan barbecue restaurant, Blue Smoke, at a breakfast sponsored by the Animal Welfare Institute to brief the press on its standards for humane pig husbandry.

This flavorful bacon was tucked inside a bun along with eggs and a sprinkling of barbecue "magic dust" seasoning. These breakfast sandwiches were so irresistible that a reporter from Nation's Restaurant News was heard to say, between mouthfuls, "I could eat about four of these."

He didn't eat four, or at least I didn't see him do it, but I confess that I grabbed a second sandwich for the road.

Before I tell you what made that bacon so delicious, permit me to digress.

As a farmer's daughter, I grew up eating beef my family raised, and pork my cousin raised and bartered to us. He and his family stayed up all night with the animals sometimes when they were giving birth to piglets. We knew what the animals were eating, and it wasn't antibiotics, growth hormones or ground-up animal carcasses.

They ate grass, corn, soy beans, wheat and such hay makers as alfalfa, sweet clover and lespedeza. If my uncle gave me a runt piglet to raise, as he did once or twice, I knew exactly what the pig ate, because I carried buckets of "slop" to it: melon rinds, potato peelings, cobs from roasting ears and other scrumptious leavings of "people food."

Pork tenderloin from such a pig tasted of the varied and nutritious things that went into the meat.

When pigs don't eat well, we don't eat well, either, at least not when we eat bacon and pork roasts and chops.

We are what they eat.

Breakfast at Blue Smoke, which uses only pork from Niman Ranch - a cooperative venture between the Niman company, based in California, and independent hog farmers who do not raise hogs in factories - made me think long and hard about whether I really want to eat pork that was not raised that old-fashioned way.

Paul Willis, a Niman farmer from Thornton, Iowa, showed a film of how his sows (that's a mother pig) bed down in soybean stalks, straw and cornstalks. We also saw pictures of factory hogs that spend their whole lives in cages without bedding and without even enough space to turn around.

Pigs on Willis' farm have "enough fat to live and be healthy outside" when the weather is good, he said, but "confinement pigs are too lean to live outdoors."

Out in southern Iowa, I once took the wrong road and ended up at a desolate factory farm, though it was not in use at the time. I got a look at those cages, though. A pig would, indeed, have to be skinny to fit.

The Illinois House of Representatives recently passed the Farm Animal and Agricultural Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act, a bill in which buried language would ban the taking of photos of animals on farms. It would be a crime only if the intent of the photographer was to "damage the enterprise."

But they already can't go onto farms and photograph without permission, pointed out an editorial released by the Peoria Journal Star and Copley News Service, urging the state Senate not to pass the bill. There is a law against that already. It is called trespassing.

The editorial called the proposed law prejudicial "because it targets one side of an ongoing debate over large-livestock farming." The editorial goes on, "The stated need for the law, according to a legislative analysis, is to protect the food supply from terrorists. Yeah, right, and this will do it.

"The more plausible reason is that opponents of factory farms have been fond of using pictures of pigs raised body to body, or lagoons filled with sewage, to bolster their case." As written, the bill would even prohibit state inspectors from taking pictures to document investigations of abuse.

There is a similar prohibition in a bill in Missouri, according to Ann Chynoweth, counsel to investigative services for the Humane Society of the United States.

However supporters justify these regulations, the very existence of them is telling. Where there is nothing to hide, as at Willis' farm, photos are welcomed.

At last week's breakfast, other speakers, too, addressed concerns about humane treatment of pigs and other animals, the use of antibiotics to control disease and promote growth, and animal-waste lagoons that allow untreated waste to turn land toxic.

Even human beings who are not especially pro-animal can buy the notion that better treatment makes better- tasting meat, if they taste bacon from abused pigs and happy pigs side by side.

Many people in this country do not even remember that you could once cut chicken with a fork, said Bobby Kennedy Jr., president and founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which was endorsing the Animal Welfare Institute's Humane On-Farm Pig Husbandry Standards. They can't recall a time when chicken wasn't "like a sponge." Most independent chicken producers already have been driven out of business by factory farming, Kennedy said, but it is not too late to save some independent pork producers.

The standards call for pigs to be "allowed to behave naturally," specify that they not be confined to small sow crates and that there be no release of liquefied pig manure into groundwater and waterways. In addition, the standards call for no constant use of small doses of antibiotics; overuse of antibiotics in animals has been linked to their reduced effectiveness in humans.

Other organizations that endorsed the standards include Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food USA, Earth Pledge Foundation and Niman Ranch, a leading purveyor of meat raised on sustainable family farms. By serving bacon from pigs that met those guidelines, Michael Romano, chef-partner at Blue Smoke and Union Square Cafe, also endorsed those standards.

So, in a way, did everybody who reached for a second bacon sandwich.

Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.