Humanely raised pork?

An extra from Porklife: building a better pig

Buying a pig born to a humanely raised mama is harder than you’d think.

Imagine a hypothetical pork consumer: we’ll call her Sally. Sally is a single mother who has learned about the plight of sows who spend the bulk of their lives crammed inside a cage. She wants to do her part to eradicate the problem, but she still wants to buy pork at a price she can afford. So she’s going for a compromise between a truly pampered pig (one raised outdoors and born to a mother also raised outdoors, on a small, family-owned farm) and the conventional pig sold in the grocery store (one raised on a factory farm). She wants, in other words, a pig born to a sow like those I saw at The Pig Adventure.

But buying a pig born to a humanely raised mama is harder than you’d think.

Sadly, Sally can’t find that pig unless she goes to a store like organic-specialist Whole Foods, which adheres to Gap Animal Partnership (GAP) standards, a five-step point welfare rating (1 being acceptable welfare, 5 being the best) for its pork products. That’s where the piglets born on Thomas Parsons’s research farm at the University of Pennsylvania in Kennett Square ultimately wind up. (Piglets born on his farm are rated step 2 because they are not restrained by stalls and have access to an enriched environment; if they were regularly let outdoors, which they aren’t for research purposes, the lab could qualify for step 3.) With the Whole Foods stringent meat selection criteria, Sally could safely buy a step 1 pig and know that all the pigs along the supply chain – including the sow that produced the meat – had space to roam.

The truth is, we simply don’t have a universal label for a factory-farmed piglet that originated in a cage-free system. The challenges, says Parsons, are logistical. We do know how to label humanely raised meat, such as grass-fed cows, but there’s still a grey area when it comes to the welfare of the mother of the meat, which generally isn’t recorded.

Complicating matters, piglets are typically weaned from their mothers at three to five weeks of age and raised on separate sites miles away from where they were born. We’d need a paper trail, noting the status of each mother’s housing experience, to follow these animals.

Once the animals get to the slaughterhouse things get more complicated still.

“The animal goes in as a pig and he comes out as a pork chop or a piece of sausage,” Parsons says. “That piece of sausage is mixed up from tens or hundreds of other pigs.” It’s hard enough to track the identity of an individual pig through this process, let alone how its mother was raised. Pigs with value-added attributes, such as animals from a “humane” supplier like Niman Ranch, are often slaughtered in blocks on specific days or at specific times to help with product segregation. But as demand for these products grows, those blocks will grow ever larger – a bureaucratic nightmare.

Still, Parsons is optimistic. Let’s say demand for pigs born to mothers who had space to roam hits 50 per cent of the market. To avoid the headaches (and costs) of segregation, individual packers might then insist that all the pigs they receive had roaming mamas.

Until that happens, though, things will remain tough for Sally. She doesn’t live near a Whole Foods, nor could she afford the markup on the pork chop caused by all the extra processing steps involved in sourcing humanely raised, let alone humanely born, meat. But as large food and agriculture companies push to eradicate gestation crates from their supply chains, without raising the cost of meat, that may soon change.