The plight of feedlot animals is hardly new to thoughtful eaters, but rarely is the difference between mainstream and free-range pork husbandry limned so movingly as in the lovely Simply Recipes post “The Meat We Eat” (thanks to the Ethicurean for pointing the way). After a chance meeting with Niman Ranch pig farmer Paul Willis, writer Elise Bauer is invited out to Iowa for a visit. She takes Willis up on his invite, and is stunned by the difference between Willis’s farm and the ubiquitous Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in the same area:

My first impression of the pigs as our caravan approached the farm was how curious they were. They ran out to meet us, as if to say “hey there, who are you?” As our afternoon unfolded, and we tromped out into the pasture with the younger pigs, that impression expanded to wonder at the joyful nature of these pigs. Paul’s pigs are indeed, happy pigs. They play, chase each other, munch on grass (30% of their diet is grass), frolic, roll around in the mud, and dig in the ground.

Contrast that with the typical treatment at a CAFO, where pigs are housed in tiny pens with slat floors that drain waste away, and are pumped full of antibiotics.

Not only are the pigs treated better, the meat tastes better, says Bauer:

Ever wonder why the natural, antibiotic-free, hormone-free pork you buy at a premium tastes so much better than the regular stuff? It’s because in order to be able to live outdoors and survive the cold weather, the pig must have enough back fat. Only certain breeds, usually the older, heritage breeds have enough fat in them for the pig to survive outside. Pigs who are free to run around in pasture also build their muscles, another source of great flavor.

As to whether she would have trouble eating pigs this cute, Bauer is mum.

The post also drew some thoughtful comments. My favorite is one from Erin, who points out:

Most family farms had to incorporate and go ‘big’ in the 1970’s and 1980’s in order to survive in the current economy. This has led to the large hog operations in states like Iowa, Illinois, and North Carolina. The midsized farms and small farms are disappearing because they can’t compete with the economies of scale that are found in the large operations.

Sarah, the daughter of a hog farmer with a CAFO, had a different take:

Most farmers who operate large confinement facilities are genuinally concerned about the impact they can have on the environment. If a spill does occur, rarely was it on purpose. If the smell is overpowering….well, perhaps you’re smelling it the wrong way. As my dad always said, ‘it smells like money’ which to us, meant college. There’s a good chance that what some of you do may be offensive to us so try to keep that in mind!

Got it, Sarah. Humans getting advanced degrees trumps the suffering of confined hogs. Oh, is my logic offensive to you? I’ll keep that in mind.

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