14 Things You Need To Know About Your Bacon
Here’s how the sausage actually gets made. (Warning: This post contains photos of dead animals.)
Posted on March 6, 2014, at 11:35 a.m.
1. About 110 million pigs are slaughtered in the United States each year, making about 23 billion pounds of pork.
Flickr: usdagov / U.S. Department of Agriculture
2. About 95% of those pigs are raised on industrial farms.
At many industrial farms, pens are overcrowded and animals live with injuries and diseases according to investigations by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Mercy for Animals, and PETA. Industrial farming practices have evolved to deal with these problems, but sometimes the solutions lead to more problems. For example, overcrowded pigs will bite at each others tails, which often leads to infection and even death. To prevent that, farm workers dock piglets’ tails when they are two to five days old, but the piglets aren’t given anesthesia to mitigate the pain. (You can watch a video that shows a docking here.)
3. Most female breeding pigs spend their entire lives in tiny stalls where they are unable to turn around.
About 90% of mom pigs live in the 2-by-7-foot metal-sided stalls known as gestation crates. “Basically, you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat,” says animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin. The crates cause open wounds, pressure sores, infections, and bleeding gums from biting the bars. Their waste falls through the slatted floors, meaning the pigs sit immobilized above the fumes. But the crates are “the best housing system for ensuring the well-being of sows,” says the National Pork Producer Council.
Studies on pigs’ intelligence indicate that they’re aware of their shitty living situation. “The fact that pigs can learn to use a mirror [to understand their surroundings and find food] means they are capable of a type of awareness called assessment awareness, which means they can understand the significance of a situation in relation to themselves,” says animal behavior expert Donald Broom of the University of Cambridge.
And despite the stereotype of pigs as sludge-loving animals, they are actually “some of the cleanest animals around, refusing to excrete anywhere near their living or eating areas when given the choice.” (Pigs do take mud dips, but it’s done to cool themselves since they don’t have sweat glands.) Other studies have shown that in the wild, pigs are social animals, that they communicate with each other, and raise their young communally.
In the last few years, more than 60 companies — including heavyweights like McDonald’s, Tyson Foods, and Target — have told their pork producers to eliminate the stalls. Pork leaders like Smithfield and Hormel Foods have pledged to be gestation crate-free by 2017.
4. Eighty percent of U.S. pigs are fed a controversial growth drug that’s banned in Europe, China, and Russia.
United Soybean Board
The National Pork Producers Council says it’s entirely safe to eat pigs that were raised with the drug ractopamine, which makes them grow leaner and faster.
“Countries that have banned pork from hogs fed ractopamine have done so to protect their domestic pork producers,” says David Warner from the NPPC. “Or in the EU’s case because it believes there could be adverse health effects at some point down the road possibly.” The National Pork Board says the drug is safe based on “rigorous, scientific reviews” that led the FDA and the United Nations (Codex) to approve its use.
But the Center for Food Safety says Codex’s approval was based on only one human study of six young, healthy men, one of whom dropped out after experiencing adverse health effects. The human health impacts are more debatable than the effects of ractopamine on animals.
“The drug has triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market,” wrote journalist Helena Bottemiller after her 2012 review of FDA reports. “Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death.” Bottemiller got access to the FDA reports under a Freedom of Information request. The FDA says this data does not establish that the drug caused these effects. The CFS and Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sued the FDA in October for withholding records pertaining to ractopamine’s safety.
Because ractopamine is banned in countries where American companies want to sell meat, some producers are starting to cut down its use. Smithfield, for example, announced last year that half of its pork supply will soon be ractopamine-free.
5. Sometimes dead piglet parts are ground up and fed to living pigs.
A recent HSUS undercover investigation at the Iron Maiden Hog Farm in Kentucky revealed that after more than 900 piglets died of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, their intestines were ground up and fed back to their mothers and other breeding pigs.
The Center for Food Integrity responded to the findings by saying that the practice, known as “feedback,” is done “to expose [the live pigs] to the virus so [they] can build up immunity.”
Humane Society of the United States
6. Smithfield pork company creates enough pig poop each year to fill four Yankee Stadiums.
The total waste discharge is 26 million tons a year according to a 2006 Rolling Stone feature on Smithfield’s poop problem. Smithfield is the largest pork supplier in the country but only accounts for about a third of our pigs (and their poop).
pisaphotography / Shutterstock
7. The poop and other factory waste are so toxic that the “lagoons” its kept in are bright pink.
The Rolling Stone article continues:
“The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure …
Industrial pig waste contains … ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans …
Smithfield’s holding ponds — the company calls them lagoons — cover as much as 120,000 square feet … The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.”
Also according to the article, humans have fallen into these lagoons and died.
Flickr: picstever / Steve
8. A few lucky pigs, like Julia (below), get rescued by organizations like Farm Sanctuary.
Farm Sanctuary rescued pregnant Julia from an upstate New York gestation crate in 2012. You can read about her and her piglets here.
9. But most head to the slaughterhouse.
Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., slaughterhouse is the largest in the world. It processes more than 30,000 hogs every day.
10. After that, your pork was probably “enhanced” with a whole lot of salt water.
Ninety percent of pork products have been pumped with some kind of solution, usually a salty one, that adds moisture and ups the price. “Enhanced” pork can have more than five times the sodium as the non-enhanced version.
Flickr: 29233640@N07 / Robert Couse-Baker
11. Your bacon, ham, hot dogs, and lunch meats are treated with a chemical called “sodium nitrite” to help them maintain that youthful red glow.
Flickr: myklroventine / Mykl Roventine
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Meat processors love sodium nitrite because it stabilizes the red color in cured meat (without nitrite, hot dogs and bacon would look gray) and gives a characteristic flavor… Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals (nitrosamines), particularly in fried bacon.”
The American Meat Institute counters that claim, saying, “Numerous scientiﬁc panels have evaluated sodium nitrite safety and the conclusions have essentially been the same: nitrite is not only safe, it is an essential public health tool because it has a proven track record of preventing botulism.”
12. To make bacon, pork bellies also get doused with “liquid smoke” and red dye.
Curing pork into bacon can be done at home with basic ingredients like pork and salt. When done en masse, though, pork bellies get a shower of “liquid smoke” and “other flavorings.”
13. Some store-bought pork contains potentially harmful and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Most of this bacteria can be killed if you handle pork correctly, but it’s there. When Consumer Reports analyzed 198 samples of pork in January 2013, it found yersinia enterocolitica, a bacteria that causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, in 69% of the tested pork samples. “We found salmonella, staphylococcus aureus, or listeria monocytogenes, more common causes of foodborne illness, in 3 to 7 percent of samples,” the study says. “And 11 percent harbored enterococcus, which can indicate fecal contamination and can cause problems such as urinary-tract infections.”
Flickr: stuartwebster / Stuart Webster
14. The term “all-natural” has nothing to do with how the pig is raised.
Don’t believe everything you read, especially if it’s printed on a meat label. Under the USDA definition, pork is “natural” as long as it has no artificial ingredients added after it’s slaughtered and is “minimally processed.”
To find pork that was raised without gestation crates, ractopamine, and other additives, you have to buy it from someone who can answer your questions.
If you’re looking for pork that was truly raised naturally, do your homework. Go to your local farmers’ market and talk to the people who raised the pigs. Shop at stores like Whole Foods or look for organic pork brands in your regular supermarket.
Not sure about a company’s practices? Google it. Ask on the company’s Facebook page. Know how your food was made.