What you should know about free-range pigs.

What to eat. What not to eat.
June 29 2009 3:42 PM

Hog Heaven?

Life is no picnic for free-range pigs.

Pig grazing in field.
A pig

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.

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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.

Correction, June 29, 2009: Due to an editing error, this piece originally identified Temple Grandin as a man; she is a woman. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, July 2, 2009: This article mistakenly referred to a chairwoman of Sweden's Animal Wefare Council. She is from Denmark's Animal Welfare Council. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

James E. McWilliams is the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly and a professor of history at Texas State University.

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