From Feed Lot to Pasture: The State of U.S. Pork

An excerpt from “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat.”

The following is an excerpt from Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, by Barry Estabrook. 

A pork chop nearly got me thrown in jail.

I was in the second row of the spectators’ gallery at a trial in Winchester, Illinois, a county seat of 1,700 citizens. Ten residents of flat, cornfield-studded, and profoundly rural Scott County had filed a nuisance suit against the owners of a massive hog farm that kept 15,000 animals crammed into a few low, warehouse-like buildings near their homes creating foul smells and infestations of flies, the plaintiffs claimed. More than seventy townsfolk had packed into Winchester’s redbrick Victorian courthouse, a grand structure that must have been built in anticipation of a prosperous future that never materialized. I had no trouble seeing where their loyalties lay. Virtually everyone sat on the plaintiffs’ side, leaving empty rows of seats behind the tables of the defendants’ lawyers. From the outset, Judge David Cherry of the Seventh Circuit Court of Illinois, a beefy middle-aged fellow, seemed nervous and a little out of sorts. In his opening remarks to jurors, he said that getting them selected in such a close-knit community had been the longest ordeal he’d ever been part of.

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When he returned to the courtroom after the lunch recess, Judge Cherry was red-faced and made no attempt to hide his anger. “There has been a serious breach in security,” he said, and ordered Karen Hudson, who had come to watch the proceedings, to approach the bench. Hudson is a veteran campaigner against factory farms and the head of an organization called Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water. In a brown pantsuit and with her unnaturally blond hair sprayed neatly in place, she looked more like a Sunday-school teacher than a zealous environmental crusader. Judge Cherry held up a pamphlet put out by her group and a paperback copy of The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories—an anthology of articles condemning modern confinement farms such as the one owned by the defendants. The judge informed Hudson that bringing such literature into his courtroom and sharing it could be construed as jury tampering. She stammered an apology, but that only made Judge Cherry angrier. He had the sheriff arrest her immediately. The officer clapped handcuffs on the middle-aged woman and escorted her out of court. The judge then adjourned the trial and told the legal teams to meet with him in his chambers. On the way out, he said to me, “You wait here.”

A half hour later, he summoned me to his office, which was crowded with ten lawyers representing both sides in the case. He gestured to a copy of a book I had written about industrial tomato agriculture and asked if I had brought it to court. I explained that one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys had requested a couple of copies and that I had waited until the noon recess to give them to the lawyer, who placed them facedown on the table. After several more questions, Judge Cherry said that he was tempted to give me the same treatment he had given Hudson, but because my misdeeds did not rise to the level of hers, he was simply going to have me removed from his courtroom.

The trial had been open to the media, and I had sat silently taking notes during the morning’s session. I got an inkling of what may have been behind Judge Cherry’s decision when I learned that a member of the hog farmers’ legal team had seen me hand over the books and reported the incident to the judge. Ultimately, Judge Cherry declared a mistrial on the chance that the jurors could have been influenced if they had seen Hudson’s book and pamphlets.

Based on the opening statements I had heard, I could imagine plenty of reasons why the lawyers for the pork producers wouldn’t want a journalist in the courtroom. During my three hours there, I had heard how a company run by one of the defendants had bought a small farm and, without informing any of the neighbors, erected four buildings and filled them with those 15,000 hogs. The plaintiffs’ lawyer said that the new pig factory emitted noxious odors through fans that blew dust, dander, and more than 200 gaseous chemical compounds over nearby homes. Manure, allowed to collect in vast pits under the barns and applied to fields without any treatment in quantities that made the ground too wet to plow, created a stench so bad that the neighbors, many from families who had lived on the same land for several generations, had to keep their windows closed in the summer. Within two months of the facility’s opening, investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that dead hogs had been left lying around the barns to rot, creating more stink and attracting hordes of flies that pestered area residents. The three Hispanic employees who tended the pigs spoke no English and could not read state manuals on how to legally dispose of the pigs that died in their care, which the plaintiffs’ lawyer said could amount to one hundred a week. State and federal officials had refused to act, forcing the reluctant plaintiffs to sue.

The defense attorney countered that, this being rural Illinois, manure odors, flies, and dead livestock were simply facts of farming life, “the nature of the business.” Besides, the facility now sent animals that died to a rendering plant, a legal method of disposal. Those dust-spewing ventilators kept the pigs cool and healthy. Everything his clients did, including spraying manure on the land, complied with state regulations. The confinement buildings that housed the hogs were an example of innovation in the industry, and he would introduce expert witnesses who would testify that the farm attracting the neighbors’ ire was a well-run, thoroughly modern operation. “These facilities are lawfully there,” he said.

Both lawyers were right. The pig factory with its thousands of crammed-together animals did pollute the air. Animals did sicken and die by the hundreds. Neighbors could no longer enjoy their homes and yards. But it was all perfectly lawful. That pig factory was no different from thousands of other operations across the country that produce virtually all the pork eaten in the United States today.

The chop that got me thinking about the way we raise pigs in this country came from a hog raised at Flying Pigs Farm, an idyllic stretch of pastures and forest set amid the hills of upstate New York. The pigs, hearty heritage breeds that don’t fit the cookie-cutter demands of factory pork production, roam freely, and produce the finest meat I’ve ever tasted. My chop was transcendent, red in color, and well marbled with strands of delicious fat that made it tender, juicy, and sublimely “porky.” It bore no resemblance to the bland “other white meat” sold in supermarkets. It was as different as a hard, pinkish January tomato is from an heirloom pulled off the vine in a garden on a warm summer afternoon. I wanted to find out how mass-produced pork met with such a fate and learn everything I could about modern hog production. When I told my partner of my plans, she sighed, “Does this mean I’ll have to give up eating bacon?” This book is my answer to that question.

Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat


There are three tribes of pigs in this country. They are all the same species, Sus scrofa, and they all originate from the same wild ancestors, but they lead vastly different lives. The first group of pigs are feral creatures that, alone among the domestic animals we eat, retain all the necessary traits to survive and even flourish in the wild—to the point where they have become serious, invasive pests that destroy crops and spread disease to domestic livestock. Human efforts to eradicate them have backfired. Tens of millions of the wily creatures live on every continent except Antarctica and in at least forty-eight states.

But even wildlife managers and agricultural agents on the front lines of the War on Wild Hogs respect their adversaries’ uncanny intelligence. Pigs are by far the most intelligent animals we have domesticated. Research shows that a pig has the mental capacity of a three-year-old human. They have been taught to solve complex puzzles and even play computer games. And pigs have been our constant companions throughout the rise of modern cultures. The Stone Age hunter-gatherers who formed the earliest permanent settlements 10,000 years ago domesticated Eurasian wild boars long before they tamed chickens, sheep, cattle, or any other food animals—even before they learned to plant and raise crops. We owe a lot to pigs.

In stark contrast to the first tribe, the second tribe of pigs spend their lives locked up in factory farms—called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in industry-speak—where they never breathe fresh air or experience free movement. More than 100 million hogs are raised in the United States each year, 97 percent of them on factory farms. Four huge conglomerates, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and Excel Fresh Meats, process two-thirds of all hogs in this country. Those pigs are crowded in pens on hard slatted floors that allow their excrement to fall into pits directly below their feet, where it stays for up to a year reeking and emanating poisonous gasses that would kill the animals should the barns’ ventilation fans fail. Even though a single pig operation generates as much waste as a small city, farmers are not required to treat it. Instead, they can and do spray it directly onto fields where it can be washed by rain into waterways.

Pregnant female pigs live their entire lives on top of their own feces and urine in individual crates that are too small for them to turn around in. Rubbing against the crates’ steel bars causes gaping, raw wounds. Piglets have their teeth pulled, their tails amputated, and their testicles removed without anesthesia. To survive in such an unhealthy environment, pigs are fed a steady diet of low-dose antibiotics, a practice that leads to the evolution of drug-resistant “superbugs” that sicken and kill thousands of humans each year. Even when medicated, factory hogs are notoriously vulnerable to epidemic diseases that sweep the industry once or twice a decade. One such illness, a porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, was first detected in the United States in May 2013. Within a year, it had killed more than 7 million American piglets.

Industrial pigs are not even guaranteed a humane death. Some modern mechanized slaughterhouses can kill and pack more than 30,000 pigs in a single day on vast “disassembly” lines. According to on-site investigations conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, many of those animals are still alive and sentient when their throats are cut and they are dipped, struggling and kicking, into tanks of scalding water. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors who report such abuses can find themselves disciplined or transferred to less desirable jobs. The pigs are killed and butchered by workers whose earnings have dropped by 40 percent since the 1980s. Once no more dangerous than the average manufacturing job, meat-packing has become more hazardous than working in construction, manufacturing, and even mining. Little wonder that Americans are leaving the industry and being replaced by desperate Hispanic immigrants who now account for one-third of the pork industry workforce.

Factory-raised meat may be cheap, but those inexpensive chops come at a cost. No facet of modern food production does as much harm to the environment, the animals it raises, and the people it employs as the pork industry.

The third tribe of pigs roam on open pastures or live in large hoop barns filled with deep straw bedding, thanks to a small number of farmers who have abandoned or refused to follow the industrial model. Females never see a crate and are kept in sociable groups of ten or twenty. The hogs receive no antibiotics. Their manure is composted to create valuable and environmentally harmless fertilizer. And the farmers who tend them earn a decent living. Consumers get great meat. Everyone wins.

Ever since I raised a few hogs in a ramshackle barn on my property, I have liked pigs. As I traveled through pork country visiting farms that produced a few dozen pigs, confinement operations that raised 150,000, and slaughterhouses that process anywhere from 20 pigs a day to 20,000, I grew to appreciate them even more. My partner and I still eat bacon. We’re just a lot more choosy about where we get it.


Courtesy of Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, by Barry Estabrook (W. W. Norton & Company, May 4, 2015)

Meet the Writer

About Barry Estabrook

Barry Estabrook is the James Beard Award-winning author of Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat (Norton, 2015) and Tomatoland (2011) based in Vergennes, Vermont.