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Feb. 21, 2012

Pigness

by Carl Flatow

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Former hog farmer, Blake Hurst, wrote an Op-Ed piece that was published in last Sunday’s NY Times, entitled, Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind. Hurst is disturbed by a TV commercial that Chipotle Mexican Grill ran during the recent Grammy Awards. In his second sentence, Hurst ascribes emotion to the pigs, that I just don’t see, anywhere, actually in the commercial. I think it’s good that Hurst associates happiness with the animals (and the farmers) in a simpler, more natural farming environment, before the use of antibiotics and confinement cages.

Hurst then criticizes Chipotle for one brief reference to pig happiness that he found, when he dug deeper into their website. He says he doesn’t know how Chipotle measures pig happiness before he proceeds to make fun of it, but he’s already shown us the answer. He, himself, has associated pig happiness with pig freedom, which is certainly not explicit in the commercial which depicts bulbous creatures with stick arms and legs, no mouths and just dots for eyes. The theme of this commercial, entitled, Back to the Start, is not so much about pig happiness, but that the pigs Chipotle buys are “treated like animals,” raised in the old style of farming which they describe as “sustainable.” Here’s the single sentence I found on Chipotle’s website,

“We believe pigs that are cared for in this way enjoy happier, healthier lives and produce the best pork we’ve ever tasted.”

I heard that same attitude during a visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, where Joel’s family actually raises pigs (and chickens and cows) in a humane way that he says, “lets the pigs express their pigness.” Polyface embodies the idea that small farmers can successfully raise animals that end up on people’s plates, which actually taste better because the animals are treated like animals. Far from being “pushed out of the industry,” as Hurst predicts such farmers would be, the Salatins run a family farm that is far more profitable than their neighbors. They’ve been there since 1961.

Hurst writes,

“We can all agree that production methods should not cause needless suffering, but for all we know, pigs are “happier” in warm, dry buildings than they are outside. And either way, the end result is a plate.”

In spite of his attempt to focus our attention on the pig happiness question, Hurst’s core argument is that Chipotle’s commercial sends the dangerous message,

“…abandon the methods of production that best provide a plentiful and affordable food supply.”

My question is, Who decided that low pork prices trump maintaining our humanity? Even if “either way the end result is a plate,” the ends don’t justify the means. Salatin, and a growing number of farmers are proving that treating sentient beings as objects is a bad idea for a host of reasons.

Hurst keeps bouncing between free market economics and morality, but neither argument holds up. If we are to focus on business principles, if this is about production efficiency, market forces, and farmers “withstanding public opprobrium” while staying in business, then the Chipotle commercial is a wake-up call. After all, as Hurst points out,

“The ad is a cartoon and easy to caricature. But its ideas have real effects on America’s farmers. The day after it ran, McDonald’s announced that it would require its pork suppliers to end the use of gestation crates.”

If Chipotle can push McDonald’s over the edge like that in one day, with one ad, I see the take-home message as, the smart businessman farmer aught to get on that bandwagon.

On the other hand, if this is about worldwide hunger or high food prices being hard on the poor, that’s a very different discussion. Everybody knows (he, he…) that hunger is a political problem, and not an economic one.

But if I follow Hurst’s logic, we should be keeping our family dog or cat in a steel crate so small that it couldn’t turn over. It would make it easier for the kids to pet, we would never have to worry that they got lost. There’d be no more going out in the rain to walk them. They’d never get into fights with the neighbor’s dog, and then come home hurt and bleeding, or, possibly not come home at all. “For all we know” they’d be “happier being in a warm, dry building….”

About Carl Flatow

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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