The Fallacy of “Humane Pork”

* A version of this piece ran in Slate in 2009.

The horrible fates of factory-farmed pigs are relatively well-known: They live crammed in drab confinement. Their tails are docked, they’re castrated to reduce aggression, and they’re stuffed with growth promoters and antibiotic-laden feed. In the minds of most, the humane alternative is the free-range cultivation of pigs, an arrangement that affords access to open space and the chance to behave like pigs. As a system of swine management, however, free-range—even though it mercifully allows ample pig mobility—is in many ways far from the ideal that most people imagine it to be.

Take the case of Jamon Iberico de bellota, a cured Spanish ham that enjoys the distinction of costing around $200 per pound. These elite swine—a privileged fraction of all Iberico pigs raised by Spanish farmers—are often heralded as living in bucolic bliss as they munch on a steady and plentiful diet of acorns. According to the popular image, they do nothing but “live, sleep, and forage in the open,” are “pampered,” and live “a leisurely, free-range life.” The raising of Iberico pigs, to be sure, is manifestly more ethical than conventional factory pork production. But the measures taken to cultivate these pigs— which includes their mutilation through ringing, castration, and spaying—have significant animal welfare implications and deserve their fair share of scrutiny.

Iberico producers affix their pigs with nose rings in order to prevent them from destroying the oak forest. Nothing, however, could be more inimical to a pig’s instinctual behavior. “Pigs are natural foragers,” explains the Soil Association, which forbids the practice, “and ringing prevents the pig from rooting.” The ring’s effectiveness depends on pain—when the pig roots, the ring hurts its snout. Pigs must be forcibly restrained before their noses are bored into with iron tongs to set the ring, and the rings must be replaced frequently. (In this case, a picture proves the point pretty well.) There are also nonphysical side effects to consider. Bruce Friedrich, a PETA spokesman, told me that “ringing also causes psychological pain,” including “life-long depression” from being denied something so “basic to its identity.”

To be fair, the Spanish producers are hardly alone in this practice. Ringing is nearly universal on free-range pig farms in the United States. Producers like the famed Niman Ranch, which has a pristine reputation for animal welfare, permit it, but that shouldn’t obscure the contested nature of the procedure. In addition to the Soil Association, the Farm Animal Welfare Council in the United Kingdom officially opposes the practice, as does Compassion in World Farming and the United Kingdom’s RSPCA. In the United States, the watchdog group Food and Water Watch supports the ban of tail-docking and nose-ringing, and the Humane Society told me in an e-mail to count them among the opposed as well.

Castration is, well, castration. As with nose-ringing, it’s not only endemic to Iberico production; it’s characteristic of pig farming in general. The main reason free-range producers castrate is to ensure that an unpleasant taste (“boar taint,” which comes with adolescence) doesn’t pervade the meat. With anesthesia, castration causes minor pain from postoperative swelling. Without anesthesia, it’s an excruciating experience. Iberico producers, as is the case with most free-range pig farmers in the United States (including Niman), castrate without painkillers. They justify this decision by castrating during the first week of a piglet’s life, assuming that the three-second procedure is less painful at this stage. According to a German study, however, “neonates [infant pigs] are capable of feeling pain and react more sensitive[ly] to pain than adults.” The chairwoman of Denmark’s Animal Welfare Council declared, “We firmly believe that it is necessary to use painkillers with any surgical castration.” Perhaps the best testimony of pain comes from this blog post on Fertile Ground USA, which includes an eyewitness account of a nonanesthetized castration. Norway forbids pig castration without anesthesia. Switzerland will follow suit this year.

Spaying is no picnic either. This procedure is generally specific to Iberico production, primarily because of the uniqueness of la dehesa—the large oak forest where these pigs roam. Free-range systems in the United States normally do not include wild boars, most of whom are perfectly happy to dilute precious genetic stock with their feral DNA. More to the point, it’s more costly for farmers to send pregnant gilts to market. Spaying is done by restraining the gilt on its side, cutting open the left flank, and pulling out the ovaries and oviduct. Essentially, it’s a hysterectomy typically performed, according to animal welfare activist Temple Grandin, without anesthesia. The French have banned the practice because, as Grandin and HER co-writer, N.G. Gregory, write in Animal Welfare and Meat Production, “it is considered cruel.”*

But with Iberico production, even this trade-off is not as clear as it might seem. Iberico pigs actually spend the first nine months of their lives in confinement. Granted, it’s not factory-farm confinement—they’ve got some room to move and all-natural feed to eat, nor are they docked or clipped. But the promoted benefits of free-range are absent—no sun, no freshly fallen acorns, no wallowing in big mud pits. While indoors, they’re castrated, spayed, kept to a feeding schedule, administered antibiotics when sick, directed to eat and sleep in carefully chosen locations, and, just before the barn doors open to the freedom of la dehesa, mutilated with a nose ring.

As responsible consumers, it’s easy to decide to avoid factory-farmed pork. The hard part is what to make of the most acceptable alternative. Does free-range farming justify the mutilation that’s often required to keep pigs outdoors? As an ethical matter, the question is open to endless debate. What the conscientious meat eater can take away from it is not so much a concrete answer as a more nuanced way to think about our food choices. In this age of deeply convincing attacks on factory farms, consumers must be careful not to immediately assume that every alternative to factory farming is as “all natural” or humane as its advocates will inevitably declare. The alternatives might require still more alternatives


“the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world . . .”: The Myth of “All Natural” (again)


Jamon Iberico de bellota is a Spanish ham routinely touted as one of the world’s finest cuts of meat. Food critic Ed Levine urges anyone who can afford the $96 a pound delicacy to indulge, calling it “ham as God would make it” (because, as we all know, God’s one hell of a pig farmer). The celebrated secret to Iberico de bellota’s succulence is pigs that roam oak forests to fatten themselves on a steady diet of sweet acorns. And therein also lies cause for foodies to go woozy: nature is producing for us, and its, like, the best ever!

While Iberico de bellota was garnering media attention a couple of years ago, after the USDA declared that it could not be imported attached to its hooves (to prevent the spread of disease), I found myself wondering about something more basic: acorns. Specifically, if acorns are so essential to Iberico de bellota, how do Spanish pig farmers guarantee a steady and well-timed supply? Could this be yet another case of farmers making a situation seem “natural” just so they could market to bunch of rich, precious, gullible pork lovers? I’m sure you know the answer.

Acorns are popular– not only with pigs but with insects. While insects aren’t smarter than pigs, they’re more resourceful when it comes to monopolizing a food supply. Throughout Spain, in fact, weevils, wasps, and moths can take an average 49 percent of a tree’s acorns before they fall. And when they do fall, wood mice compete for them. So how do these famous pigs get their share–which is 20 to 30 pounds of acorns a day? Speaking for niche producers of pork, one farmer said, “It isn’t sustainable, it isn’t very natural, but it tastes great.” (Well, yeah, God made it.)

To further explore my acorn question, I called Heath Putnam, founder and owner of Wooly Pigs Farms, which produces niche European pork in Washington State. Putnam believes that at least some acorns consumed by Iberico pigs are imported to western Spain, most likely from Tunisia or Turkey. A Spanish newspaper report supports his claim. Futher backup comes from Viktor Nordstrom, a student of Iberico production, who has gone so far as to suggest that Spanish producers might soon be importing acorns from the United States.

This is a messy claim, one that the foodie media would never explore because its job is to praise and promote these delicacies rather than actually investigate them. If true, acorngate challenges nothing less than the core identity of Iberico de bellota. Indeed, the image of rampant Iberico pigs living in a blissful state of nature is rampant. Just as much as they value its taste, consumers value the image of Iberico pigs eating a diet provided entirely by nature under all-natural conditions. Google up “free range” and “Iberico” and be prepared to swallow some propaganda.

Intrigued as I was, I had my doubts about these supposedly imported acorns. Putnam, after all, is raising pigs in this country to compete with a very expensive Spanish rival that has a very well-established mystique. To try to confirm his rather grim description of what’s so commonly praised as “nature’s slow food,” I checked in with Alberto Solis, director of sales and marketing for Fermin USA, an importer of Iberico products. His reaction to the charge? “I have never heard of anybody importing acorns into Spain to feed the Iberico pigs.” His colleague, Jonathan Harris, an owner of La Tienda, another Iberico importer, agreed, telling me: “That would be cheating.”

Welcome to the world of trying to figure out how food is made.

For all the disagreement, one thing is certain about the Iberico diet: the hogs eat more than the sweet acorns that fall from the majestic oaks under which they frolic. Iberico hogs consume a diet of (“all-natural”) commercial feed while in confinement for the first nine months of their truncated lives. Once released to the dehesa, their diet is carefully structured through an arrangement of continued commercial feed, acorns gathered and placed in strategic locations, acorns that have fallen naturally, and access to a man-made watering hole located a set distance from the food. The logic behind this carefully engineered system is that the animals will move around just enough to enhance flavor.

For now, the ultimate source of the Iberico acorns might have to remain a secret of la dehesa. But the attitudes about what those acorns represent are out in the open, and worth considering. Don Harris, Jonathan’s father and another owner of La Tienda, bluntly admits that “people want the romance” of nature in their food. Solis, the Iberico importer, goes further with the romance, telling me in an email, “James, these are the luckiest, happiest pigs in the world. No other pig spends the last 4-5 months of its life eating its favorite food (acorn), living in the wild, and practicing safe sex….”

Putnam, for his part, is generally unfazed by the romance. Speaking for niche producers of pork in general he explained, “We’ll do what it takes to get the fat and flavor as good as possible…It isn’t sustainable, it isn’t very natural, but it tastes great.”

So, as it so often does, the tyranny of taste rules. But even at $1,300 a hock, there’s very little that’s “all-natural” about Iberico pork.


The, a mainstream publication with the guts to publish my animal-rights pieces, specializes in cutting to the core of the issues that define modern life.  Very few contradictions make it through the site’s discerning filters. Read it.

That said, I was deeply frustrated to read the following opening paragraph about Iberico pigs:

I had never seen pigs run. Which was why, I realized, it looked so ridiculous when more than a dozen of them crested a hill, heading straight toward me at an ear-flapping porcine gallop. Before this, my experience with swine was mostly limited to watching them grunt in dusty pens on New England farms. Until I got chased down the driveway of a Spanish farm by a pack of them, I had no idea that they were natural runners—and that I should care. It turns out what makes a pig happy will make it taste that much better.

Wow. Are we so chauvinistic that we can recognize (and praise) a non-human animal’s happiness while, in the same breath, promote that animal’s death? I plan to do some serious thinking about this paradox because, frankly, it demeans humanity to allow its persistence.

Here is the full article:

I urge you to respond to it on the Atlantic’s website.