Pork: the other guilty meat

Humane treatment of pigs is on the menu this season.

My family's Easter dinner has always included a bulky baked ham. I often slash the top into diamond shapes, mix apricot jam with hot mustard and a bit of honey, and spread that layer on top, then stud every intersection with a clove. Sometimes for old times' sake, I add those passé pineapple rings with their bull's-eye maraschino cherries. They get basted with the drippings, and when the ham comes out of the oven, it glistens, its aroma carries into every room, and the slices, cut thin and thick, are the pink color I associate with celebration. On holidays, trans fats get a pass.

Born in Prague, I could rhapsodize about bologna, knockwurst, and bloodwurst. My aunt's fresh pork roast had no equal, baked with its surround of red sauerkraut and swimming in its own juices. My mouth waters as I write this, but....

Last October, the front page of the Arizona Republic featured a photo of a sow confined in a narrow cage. The picture was used to illustrate Proposition 204, passed by Arizonians in a landslide victory. This farming initiative goes into effect Dec. 31, 2012, and will free other pregnant pigs – sows are repeatedly artificially impregnated – from intense confinement in stalls that measure a mere two-by-seven feet. They're so small, the animals can't even turn around.

The use of these "gestation crates," has also been banned in Florida, but not in the other 48 states. No law bans "farrowing crates" anywhere in this country, either. This is the enclosure to which a sow is moved during the process of giving birth and in which she is similarly confined and immobilized while she is nursing, and which separates her from her piglets when she isn't. Europe has banned both of these practices. Isn't it time the US did, too?

Earlier this month, one of America's foremost restaurateurs, Wolfgang Puck, announced that his menus will feature dishes that come only from farms where animals are allowed to roam free. One hopes that a greater awareness, and other restaurateurs, will follow.

'Don't ask, don't tell' won't cut it

The days of "don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to animal farming are over. It's all there on the Internet. If you have the stomach for it, learn about pig slaughter. The Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 decrees that animals be rendered "insensitive to pain" before they are shackled and slaughtered, but there is insufficient compliance and enforcement. As they reach market weight, pigs raised for meat are put in overcrowded barren pens with concrete, wire mesh, or wood-slatted floors, without bedding materials or thermal protection. Young piglets endure physical mutilations, such as having their tails cut off to prevent tail biting (caused by stress in overcrowded conditions) and castration – procedures performed without anesthetic. Now imagine the stench from decaying fecal matter, ammonia, and other noxious fumes.

"It's only a pig," you say? We will go to any lengths to save a baby bird that has fallen from its nest. Yet, when it comes to the remarkably intelligent creatures that we carve up for dinner plates, we shrug.

Intelligent, affectionate pigs

Considered as smart as or smarter than dogs, pigs have been trained to discern images on a computer screen, and of course, to sniff out truffles. Clearly complex, they are, like Wilbur of "Charlotte's Web," capable of feeling pain and frustration, joy and excitement. They are kind, social animals capable of becoming domesticated and affectionate. They need company (as do we), and keeping them immobilized and in solitary confinement from birth to death is barbaric.

This information is what is facing me this Easter Sunday. Thankfully, some progress is being made. Smithfield Foods now will require its participating farms to raise pigs without gestation crates, in pens where sows are housed in groups. I hope others will follow. Meanwhile, 48 states continue to produce pork without farm animal welfare laws. We have to do better than this!

Forget the serious and similar plight of calves for the moment, put aside the cruelty of foie gras; many of us gave up eating those long ago. As far as cows, chickens, and turkeys go, of course we care, and living lobsters piled up with their claws tied in tanks need their advocates, too. But, this season, it's about the pig.

Nobler people than I eat only things that do not try to get away, and I profoundly admire and respect them. But living without bacon, salami, spare ribs, and my traditional Easter ham, is as hard for me as giving up music, or holidays, or nature. I will be careful where I buy that ham, to be sure. On the other hand, glaze and pineapple notwithstanding, until all pigs roam free on every farm in America, and the methods of slaughter become universally humane, our family's traditional dish may still leave us with a profoundly unpleasant aftertaste.

Marlene Fanta Shyer is an author and playwright.

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