Industrial Pig Farming – This is how bacon is produced nowadays
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We asked our readers how much they know about factory farming (see pie chart below). More than 350 people participated. Thank you guys! Turns out that only about half know how meat is produced nowadays – including our vegetarian and vegan readers. For us, this was reason enough to look a bit more deeply into the pork industry.
Note: we don’t want this article to be a sensational piece, but rather give you a realistic overview of how industrial pig farming works.
US pork production in numbers
129 Million pigs are raised and slaughtered per year in the US (2019). That makes the country the 3rd biggest pork producer after China and Europe.
The largest producer in the US is Smithfield. They run “farms” with more than 8000 pigs crammed in. They have slaughterhouses, like this one in Tar Heel, North Carolina, that slaughter up to 34,000 pigs – per day.
The days when pigs lived on small farms next to cows and chicken are over. It’s big business now.
And we participate in it big time as well: only 3% of meat in the US is produced organically. And that still doesn’t always mean great conditions for the animals.
How do companies like Smithfield operate?
Industrial pig farming is an efficient industry in which each part of the process is specialized:
There are specialists for the semen production and insemination. You have separate facilities for gestation, breeding and nursing. There is a finely-tuned cramming process and highly optimized slaughterhouses. This doesn’t happen in one town. Pigs usually have many hours of transportation behind them until they finally land in the supermarket.
The price for this process optimization is paid for by the pigs.
Chapter 1: The Piglet Production
Once inseminated by the farmer/ veterinarian a sow has a 110 day gestation period. She will usually have 12-13 piglets per pregnancy.
A still common widespread way of keeping sows is the use of gestation crates during pregnancy, and farrowing crates for the time the sow nurses the piglets. Both crates are basically individual cells so narrow the sow can only make a few steps forward and backward, but is not able to turn around.
Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States were able to put pressure on politcians and pork producers about this issue. The use of individual crates is slowly being phased out and replaced for group pens. For example, Smithfield agreed to stop using these crates by 2022.
A sow is slaughtered after roughly 5 years. That’s when her teats start wearing down and the piglets cannot be fed uniformly anymore. By then she will have had 4-7 pregnancies and most likely have spent all her life in a gestation crate and farrowing crate.
If a sow is overdue more than one day, the birth will be hormonally induced. That way everything can remain on schedule. Male piglets get their testicles cut off in the first few days, which leads to better tasting meat. This usually happens without anesthesia. Sometimes pain medication is given though.
After 28 days with their mother in the farrowing crate the piglets will be transferred to a nursery barn where they are fed for 6 to 8 weeks. During that time their teeth and tails are clipped to prevent them from injuring each other.
Chapter 2: Growing and Finishing
Once the piglets are old enough they are moved over to a “wean-to-finish barn” where they stay until slaughter day.
Concrete slats (like those shown in the picture above) are handy for the farmer because the pig feces are easily squeezed into the manure tank below. The drawback: the smell will take your breath away. In a bad way. Slats can also lead to joint inflammation for the animals. This is only enforced by their rapid weight gain – from 60 lbs (27 kg) to 280 lbs (127 kg) in three months.
Since pigs naturally like to wallow and dig, they get bored very quickly in factory farms. This results in fights between the pigs. This is actually a reason why their tails are pinched off – otherwise they would bite them off each other.
Chapter 3: The Slaughterhouse
When the pigs are “ready” they are usually transported for many hours to slaughterhouses like the one in Tar Heel, North Carolina, handling 34,000 pigs a day. Farmers calculate to include 1% transport losses – pigs that don’t survive the ride.
Transportation causes stress for the pigs, which is why they are usually kept for an hour in “rest areas” to calm them down. Not to be nice though. Stress decreases meat quality.
Prior to slaughtering, the hogs are stunned. This is usually done with carbon dioxide. The animals are unconscious after 10 seconds if everything works well. Until then they panic due to fear of suffocation and no possibility of escape. And if they’re unlucky the pigs even wake up after their CO2 stun. Either way, next they are hooked up and their carotid artery slit through. Lastly they are cut and packed for sale.
This is the basic overview of how pork comes on the table. There is more to industrial pig farming though of course.
Chapter 4: The Manure Lakes
Industrial pig farms create huge amounts of feces. Each pig produces approximately two-to-five times more than a human. This is stored in massive manure lagoons close to the sites. One way to empty those lagoons is the use of spray guns that regularly spray manure onto certain fields.
Processing this much waste has significant drawbacks. Here are a few issues local communities living close to industrial pig farms face:
- Odor so bad BBQs in the garden are not possible anymore
- Contaminated drinking water
- Health problems like nausea, asthma, higher blood pressure and diarrhea
- Devalued properties
In particular, the people in North Carolina (US) could sing a song of the problems mentioned above. An improvement of the situation is very difficult however, especially because companies located in that area like Smithfield claim they’re already going beyond meeting state regulations on waste processing.
Manure pits can be especially dangerous when working close to them. Sadly enough, many people have died already by falling into those lagoons and being overcome by the fumes.
Chapter 5: Antibiotics
About two-thirds of all the antibiotics in the United States are used in agriculture. Most of it is used in pig farming. Compared to cattle farming it can be up to four times as much.
It’s not just that ill pigs get treatment, but rather antibiotics are fed to all pigs in order to prevent disease. In 2012 the USDA showed that almost 70% of US pig farms feed antibiotics.
The concentrations are usually very low and mixed with the feed. Critics say it is a substitution for “good hygiene and herd health.”
Now, the main problem is not that you’ll find antibiotics in a sausage at the supermarket. Often times that’s not even the case since hogs need to be “antibiotic-free” for a certain amount of time before they are allowed to be slaughtered.
Here is the real problem: bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics. The more excessive the antibiotics are used the faster bacteria can develop resistances, eventually making antibiotics ineffective. When such a resistant bacteria infects humans, it means real trouble, as there is nothing left as treatment.
This is not a theoretical scenario anymore. Scientists showed that dangerous bacteria in pigs started infecting humans.
Unfortunately, scientists also report that companies ban them from their sites making it hard to research more deeply into the dangers of antibiotic use in factory farmed animals.
Chapter 6: Working Conditions
Not only animals have a tough time in industrial farming. On average, people slaughtering and handling meat earn $25.000 per year. This makes it one of USA’s lowest paid jobs.
42% of the workforce is hispanic, of which many don’t have citizenship nor even speak English. Even though the pay is very low on average, for many people from various Latin countries it’s still significantly higher than at home. All this puts many workers at the mercy of their companies: no English to defend themselves, no legal status, and a dependency on the money.
Meat packing belongs to the most dangerous jobs according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s gruesome work on repeat, often with many hours overtime. And on top of everything, these workers are also the first to be exposed to the multi-resistant bacteria mentioned in chapter 5.
There are even studies that connected increased crime rate in areas with slaughterhouses. It is suggested that routinely killing and processing animals is emotionally harming people and leads to more violent behaviour.
Personal stories of working conditions in industrial farming are not an easy read, but will give you a good idea of what’s going on. Check out this article and this article to get an idea. It’s no surprise the turnover rates are one of the highest across industries: Almost everybody leaves after one year.
Epilogue: Should we do something?
I understand that some people just love meat and are not willing to give it up.
Though, is it true that we need to feed the world first with pork and just think about the side-effects with secondary disregard? I think not. The reason to eat meat is not for survival or being healthy anymore. We eat it for pleasure. Even if you believe meat is necessary for health, the current amounts people eat on average are way over the top.
So, the question we have to ask ourselves is: do we want to support factory farming with all it’s facets purely for our pleasure?
Even the most avid meat enthusiasts will have trouble agreeing with the conditions of factory farms and slaughterhouses, let alone working in those facilities. Unfortunately, this work is delegated out of sight, out of mind. Here’s where everybody should stop for a moment: is it alright to consume something I couldn’t bear handling myself, so much so, that I need to have someone else do it for me?
Factory farming is all around us but it’s hidden from the consumer – with apparent reason. The EU is a massive producer with Germany at the forefront. In the US it’s even cheaper to produce pork than it is in China – up to 50%!
There are two elements that can change things:
First, the consumer themselves: if we stop eating pork or only eat pork from farms with high standards then pig farming will change. A different consumer demand will force producers to change the way they do things.
Second, government regulation and control: I grew up on a relatively “traditional” farm. Sometimes my step-father would raise hogs. Though it was not even close to being a factory farm, in hindsight I cannot say those pigs had good lives in their small, dark sheds. My point is, you will always have farmers trying to optimize their profits with the animals paying the price, no matter whether it’s conventional farming or organic farming. Only governmental regulations and controls can ensure a certain amount of life quality for animals. So, it’s on us to support initiatives and people who are fighting for animal welfare on a governmental level.
Projects against Factory Farming
It’s not just big organizations like PETA or Mercy for Animals that are putting up a fight against factory farming, but also local community founded initiatives to stop industrial animal farming in their areas. Have a look at the following websites to learn more about what’s going on right now:
- Socially Responsible Agricultural Project: An organization in the US working directly with communities most heavily affected by industrial animal farming.
- PETA: It’s the largest animal rights organization in the world
- Humane Society of the United States: USA’s biggest animal protection organization
- Farm Aid: An organization dedicated to ethical farming
Thanks a ton for reading all the way to here! We really appreciate it.
Thank you for posting this. If more people knew, more people would be vegan.
You’re welcome, Tamara! Fortunately more and more people learn about factory farming one way or another 🙂
Europe isn’t a country! 😉
I don’t really say it in that sentence. Well, maybe I imply it – at best 😉
But yeah, I think the gist is still clear. Thanks for mentioning anyway!
It’s sad to say that 90percent of this article is not factually correct..I am a farmer and we take great care of our animals and make sure they are comfortable..these guys don’t have a clue
Hi Lee! Thanks for your comment. Which point is incorrect? I’m happy to review. Greetings!
Hauke I defininetly believe you did not grow up on a farm. Also you haven’t been within a 30 mile radius of a farm.
Hi Peter, I grew up on a dairy farm. We also had some pigs for a while. If you like, pick one of these 6 points and explain to me where I’m wrong. I don’t doubt that there are honest farmers who treat their animals properly. Unfortunately there are huge numbers of farms that dont. That is a shame.
It depends on what company it is and secondly i bet you work at walmart
thank you very much for this article. Only better informed consumers can make better choices.
Concerning solutions or elements that can make things change – I believe the best way to tackle the issue is through more and better regulation on animal welfare to stop cruel practices. Some people may consider that eating porc (or chicken etc) is already cruel, however, I would “run away” from organisations/activists that portray meateaters as evil people, first because it’s ridiculous and secondly, because it alienates potential supporters. Individual choices are, indeed, important. However, real change can only be achieved through regulation. Or both, for example some European countries like Germany are considering the possibility of introducing an “animal welfare label”, so that consumers know exactly that if they’re paying some extra cents per kilo is because animals are treated better in the farms (and yes, that increases production costs).
I hope change will come progressively, though it’ll take some time. It’s all a combination of regulation + change of consumption habits (not everyone need to be vegan, but it’s also true that meat consumption is massive and harmful for a healthy lifestyle) + better consumer choices.
As said, thanks for sharing, very interesting piece!
Thanks a ton for your detailed comment, Clara! I agree with all your points. Regulation is absolutely necessary to get change going, be it just by forcing producers to inform consumers about the origin of their meat. It worked very well in the Egg-Industry in Germany, where the consumption moved almost entirely to free-range and organic eggs – only by informing the consumer where an egg is produced.
Thank you very much fir this excellent article.
It is clear and not too shocking, i am vegetarian myself but i feel too sensitive for some articles about that. I really like the way of informating people without trying to shock. The situation is shocking enough.
All the aspects are brought up, the animal condition, working condition of people there (it is not because it is well-paid but because they take advantages on social situations, i didn’t though about that and how terrible the repercussions are) , those manure pits, the neighboors, the antibiotics, omg!
I am very grateful and thankful that people like you fight and inform us about this terrible situation !
Thanks a lot for the supporting words, Maude! Yes, I agree with you about the shock photos. It might actually shake some people awake, but often leads to denial as well. I think a moderate approach to factory farming will help make it for many people easier to read up on that topic.
Hi from the UK – great website – I read your article without opening all the links – I get too upset if I have to watch real footage. I have heard that if everyone spent some time in a slaughterhouse they would change their mind about eating meat. I am 99% vegetarian with very occasional meat from a great farm in Wales where animal welfare is paramount; yes it is expensive but if you only eat meat a couple of times a month it is affordable – I would be happy not to have meat at all but my husband is not committed to being totally vegetarian. He is of the ‘ignorance is bliss school’ I am sorry to say. I also avoid dairy as the dairy cows have a horrible life. I only eat eggs from my own free range hens. I am visiting the US in a couple of weeks – I will be vegan for the 2 weeks I am there.
We are having a vegan festival in Reading on September 23rd.
Heya Barb! And hello from Hamburg 🙂
Really glad you like the website and article. I’ll reply for Hauke as he’s away giving a seminar for a couple of days. Yes, absolutely, slaughterhouses and the whole factory farming setup are an awful thing. With this article we’ve tried to simply just show exactly how meat arrives on our plates – we hope if even just a few people read and change their minds then we will have done something. Like your husband maybe! 😉
Avoiding dairy is something I don’t do yet – I’d be lying if I said I did. I have cut down (a lot!), just as I did at the beginning with meat, and I plan to go the same route. Do you mind if I ask which farm in Wales you get your meat from? I ask because I lived down in the lovely Swansea for four years and still miss it!
I’d love to hear how you get on with two weeks of vegan in the US! It sounds quite an adventure. I imagine some places (Florida, California etc) it would be very easy, but much tougher in places like Texas. But maybe I’m wrong. Thanks for writing!
Oh, and enjoy the Reading (vegan) Festival!
The milk industry is – unfortunately- worse. Because the suffering does not stop with th death of an innocent being! Cows get raped over and over and over until they are not producing enough milk and then sent to slaughter anyways. Apart from that the real suffering happens when the cows give birth and humans take their babies away only to murder the male ones. the female ones look forward to the same abusive like their mothers. and this is how it happens worldwide in the milk industry. a local farm with 10 cows who keeps the babies is not able to produce the amount that is sold worldwide.
so please people, consider going vegan. because vegetarian does not save lifes.
You’re absolutely correct, Aleen! The dairy industry is another whole area that needs attention. I’ll write an article on it and will also have a discussion pro & con dairy focusing on “organic” farms.
Hi Aleen and Auke, I’m really sorry to say but… Please find out first how it goes on a dairy farm before yelling it is even worse. oké. some might just try to make a living without any regards for animals but that is the same when they would have a business without animals involved. they will misuse people as well. those people shouldn’t be granted to be involved with living creatures at all.
But if you look at the 95% of the farmers that have dairy farms and are good for their animals you won’t see any mistreating of the animals. on the other hand. if they wouldn’t be good for the animals the animals wouldn’t produce any milk or beef at all. but you both probably won’t even see this because you have a prejudice against the farming business, which i regret.
btw. I have studied agriculture have been working in the business and are planning to get working in the pig farming too. but I can assure you, I treat the animals with respect always as are the other farmers I know of, and that are a lot
thanks a lot for your comment. I would argue that I have reasonable insights of what’s going on in the pig farming industry. Fact is that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in pork production mostly have replaced “traditional” hog farms and conditions in these CAFOs are not good. As for the dairy industry I have yet to do proper research.
Growing up on a traditional dairy farm I can at least say from personal experience things are better for cows than for hogs. But again, CAFOs are on the forefront in that area too and conditions get worse in that environment. In my hometown there were 20+ dairy farmers in the early 90s. Now there are 2 left, the rest had to shut down due to price pressure from big CAFOs. Former grazing fields are now used for corn. I’ll do my research in dairy as well, but Im not optimistic either in that area I’m afraid.
Hi Dave – just to let you know I survived in the US ! We were in New York/ Connecticut/New Jersey. I managed a vegan diet although the main problems were being other peoples houses (i.e. relatives) who generally eat out – even for breakfast and don’t keep much food in the house. But I found some amazing places to eat – there was an outdoor smorgasbord in New York which was street food – very good – the Jack fruit burgers were great. Even at the Statue of Liberty visit I found a great vegan sandwich. I visited a yoga retreat just to eat there – amazing place and wonderful food – that is Kripalu yoga retreat.
Most places offered vegeburgers or vegewraps. I agree Texas might be more tricky.
We are going to Florida in March – will be interesting to see how that compares.
The farm in wales is called Rhug estate – it has a nice website.
The Reading vegan fest was a great success and wonderful to see so many really young folk there – and the same at London Olympia Vegfest which was over 2 days with lots of great speakers as well as 300 stalls.
The power of veg is growing! That all sounds awesome, Barb, great news! I’m really happy to hear it was all such a success. It’s definitely becoming more and more common everywhere. I did have a bit of a shock when I went on business trip to Frankfurt (Germany) and the first evening I tried four places near my hotel – there we no veggie options at all. One place had a ‘vegetarian pasta’ made with parmesan (which isn’t vegetarian). In the end I had to settle for chips and ketchup – not what I had been expecting! Luckily the second day was much better as I used the happycow website (you know it) and found some great veggie places. Thanks for the update – and maybe see you at the Reading fest next year!!
Industrial farming is wrong on many levels. Animals “live” in conditions nobody would like to be in. Although veganism isn’t so innocent by itself, as many animals are being killed, just that crops (industrial growing) don’t get eaten and are nice to look at. In my opinion, the best way would be, if we made our own food, like our ancestors did.