Journalist Barry Estabrook knows how to enjoy a juicy heritage pork chop. He'll also be the first to tell you what intelligent, sensitive creatures pigs are. "I had no idea how smart they were until I got in the research," Estabrook tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies.
Estabrook is the author of Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat, out May 4. "I set out on the premise that if you're going to eat an animal, maybe you owed it to yourself to find out as much as you could about the way the animal thought, its cognitive abilities," Estabrook explains.
In the course of his research, Estabrook spoke with scientists who taught pigs how to play computer games. He learned that pigs have a sense of self and that they can recognize themselves in mirrors. Pigs, he says, can look at another pig and calculate what that pig might do or how it might act.
Estabrook also witnessed brutality at some large-scale pig operations firsthand. One facility he visited held 1,500 pregnant pigs in cramped individual cages. "They were like people sitting in the seats of one of those regional aircrafts," Estabrook says. "Their sides stuck out through the bars; they could not turn around. They could not move in any way at all and that's the way those pigs basically lived their entire life."
Estabrook estimates that 80 percent of the sows in the U.S. live their lives in factory conditions where they are crammed into cages and fed an abundance of antibiotics to prevent disease. But, he adds, there are other options, such as one farm he visited in upstate New York, where the pigs are raised on pasture.
"They don't get antibiotics unless they're sick, they're never cooped up, the mother sows are not kept in crates," Estabrook says. "They live in a great amiable sorority under the trees with a little mud puddle in the center of it, and the end result is this pork is incredible. It's sold to some of the very best restaurants in New York City."
On the emotional intelligence of pigs
I interviewed a woman named Sy Montgomery, a writer, who kept a pet pig for 14 years and [the pig] had incredible emotional intelligence, far more than her dogs, she said. He knew when she was sad and he was normally quite rambunctious around her, which is something for a 750 pound animal, when she was sad (her parents had died) he was very quiet, he was like a kitten. For some reason, he loved certain people that he met and even if that person would only come once every year or two he would greet him with the same effusive grunts and squeals. There was a little girl who lived down the road who was suffering [from] cancer and she would come and sit beside the pig after particularly bad bouts of chemotherapy and the pig would let her lie on him and he was just as gentle as could be.
On feral pigs
At last count, they know that wild, feral pig populations exist in 48 states and probably all of them — but think of them, they breed better than rabbits. A feral sow can have 12 piglets every year and those piglets are ready to breed in less than a year. There's no other large animal that breeds at anything close to that pace. These animals can run 30 miles an hour, they can jump 3 feet high; they can smell a morsel of food 7 miles away. A pig's snout is a marvel of excavating engineering technology. I mean, they can root up a patch of land in no time and it looks like a bulldozer has been through. They can and do eat anything. So they're ideally poised to take over an area once they get there.
On the conditions of industrial pig slaughterhouses
Of all the things I saw, the thing that hit me the hardest, twisted my guts the hardest, was when I walked into a low, dark barn in Iowa and in that barn there were 1,500 sows, pregnant female pigs, and they were all in individual cages that were too small to hold them. ... When they did have their babies they would move into something called a 'farrowing crate' which allowed the sow no more room to move, and you take these intelligent, inquisitive, emotional creatures and confine them to a lifetime — it would be like being confined to a coffin for a lifetime or worse than your dog being confined to its travel case for a lifetime. But that's the way 80 percent of the sows in this country live their entire life.
On disposal of pig excrement
In a typical industrial pig farm, both sows, piglets and growing pigs, they're kept on grated floors, hard, grated floors and the excrement either dribbles or is squished through the grates into the equivalent of a basement directly below them where it sits. It can sit for up to a year, creating incredible noxious odors which also happen to be poison — ammonia, hydrogen sulfite — those are poisonous gasses. [The farms] keep the pigs alive by having these huge jet engine-like fans on the end of the barns that are constantly blowing in fresh air, or the pigs could asphyxiate.
A farmer in Missouri — it happened late one Saturday night — a thunderstorm went through and the electricity failed in his fans and for some reason the generator, which was supposed to kick on, didn't, and when he woke up Sunday morning to go to church he discovered that several hundred of the pigs in the barn had asphyxiated in just a few hours. He had to spend Sunday dragging them out and digging a mass grave for his pigs. Interestingly, it was shortly thereafter that he decided he wasn't going to keep raising pigs that way. ...
They can be killed also if the barn overheats when the fans fail. They really are living in some sort of weird life support system just long enough to reach slaughter weight.
On raising industrial pigs on antibiotics
The vast majority of industrial pigs in this country are fed a steady, low level of antibiotics in their food, whether they're sick or not. The industry says it's a prophylactic measure to keep them from getting sick, other people will say, "No, the industry just does that because it does make the pigs grow a little faster." But the end result is the same. These conditions are ideal for the mutation of bacteria ... that are resistant to antibiotics, the type of bacteria that kill about 23,000 Americans every year according to the CDC. This is just the perfect incubator — you couldn't create a better incubator in a laboratory than a building crowded with thousands of stressed animals who are being fed low levels of antibiotics every day.
On what industrial pigs are fed
It's pretty ugly. The basic ration is corn or soy, but to that, they can add rendered pig meat, making them cannibals. They can add something called "feather meal," which is what it sounds like; it's the feathers that come from chicken and turkey slaughterhouses. They can be fed chicken manure, the litter off the floor of chicken houses because manure has protein in it. So there are all sorts of things that are quite frightening in the diet of an industrial pig.
On the alternative to the large-scale industrial slaughterhouses
There's people who raise pigs as pigs, they understand the animal and they raise pigs in a way that's natural for the pigs that allow the pigs to express their instincts, that allow them to get exercise, that allow them to eat proper food and it's a very small minority, unfortunately, but it's becoming more visible, it's growing, and it's totally different. I came to the conclusion that pork is either the best meat you can eat, or the worst from any perspective — gastronomic, environmental, animal welfare, and it all depends on how they're raised.
On humans' relationship to pigs
I think that it's far worse to raise a pig under horrific conditions, torture it for its entire life, drive it crazy, not kill it in a way that it's assured a good, quick death, than raising an animal well so that it has as good a life as it could expect and then consuming it. To me, there's no comparison between the two. ... Pigs and humans, culturally, we've evolved together. Pigs have helped us, we've helped pigs, it's what Temple Grandin calls "the ancient contract," and our part of that contract is to do our bit well and pigs' part of that contract is to provide us with food.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. You probably don't think about pigs a lot, but writer Barry Estabrook has some pretty amazing things to tell you about them - how they're smart and curious and self-aware, how feral pigs are running amok in Texas. Estabrook likes pigs, and he also likes a good pork chop. His new book is about pigs and our relationship with them and especially about the troubling conditions in modern industrial-scale pig farms.
Estabrook writes that the way pigs are raised and slaughtered doesn't just inflict enormous suffering on the animals; it also creates hardship and health problems for the farm's neighbors and workers and causes significant environmental damage. And as an award-winning food writer, he's also troubled by what it does to the quality of the pork we eat.
Barry Estabrook is a three-time James Beard Award winner and a former contributing editor at Gourmet Magazine. He was last on FRESH AIR to talk about his book "Tomatoland." His new book is called "Pig Tales."
Barry Estabrook, welcome back to FRESH AIR. There are a lot of troubling things about the way pigs are raised in big, industrial settings, including the fact that they can't move around. And some people say, who cares? They're pigs. Do they even know the difference? And one of the things you write about here is what we know about pigs' intelligence and curiosity. Tell us about that.
BARRY ESTABROOK: Well, I set out, you know, on the premise that if you're going to eat an animal, maybe you owed it to yourself to find out as much as you could about the way the animal thought - its cognitive abilities. And, I think, like most people, I knew pigs were smart. I mean, you hear about that. I had no idea how smart they were until I got in the research. I spoke with scientists who taught pigs how to play computer games. And you know, I discovered that pigs had a - have a sense of self. They can recognize themselves in mirrors. They can look at another pig and calculate what that pig might do and act accordingly. These are all advanced traits that, until the last 20 years, people thought only humans and perhaps some of the great apes had, but pigs have all of these.
DAVIES: I've got to ask you how they play computer games.
ESTABROOK: It was a woman named Candace Croney, and she wanted to study pig intelligent, that all sorts of people might ridicule her, saying, well, that's - you know, you're letting your personal feelings enter in. So she decided she would set up a computer which would either register right or wrong. There would be no way she could get - let her own feelings enter.
And she went out to a box store and bought a game console, took it back, encased the screen in a Plexiglas box so the pigs wouldn't destroy it and had some people design a special pig-proof joystick. They actually put a tractor knob on top of the joystick that came with the console. And the pigs were trained to nuzzle the joystick around until they moved a cursor to a target. And if they hit the target, a machine on the other side of the room would spit out some M&Ms.
ESTABROOK: And they learned to do it remarkably well and remarkably quickly.
DAVIES: What about pigs' emotions? I mean, does it appear that they create emotional bonds with each other or humans, you know, and feel loss?
ESTABROOK: They certainly do. I interviewed a woman named Sy Montgomery, a writer who kept a pet pig for 14 years. And he had incredible emotional intelligence, she - far more than her dog, she said. He knew when she was sad, and he would - he was normally quite rambunctious around her, which is something for a 750-pound animal, but when she was sad - her parents had died - he was very quiet. He was like a kitten. He, for some reason, loved certain people that he met, and even if that person would only come once every year or two, he would greet him with the same effusive grunts and squeals.
There was a little girl who lived down the road who was suffering cancer, and she would come and sit beside the pig after particularly bad bouts of chemotherapy. And the pig would let her lie on him, and he was just as gentle as could be. And on the other side, if he didn't like you for whatever reason, forget it.
ESTABROOK: One of Sy Montgomery's friends brought a new boyfriend over and said, this is the guy, finally. And the pig, whose name was Christopher Hogwood, hated the guy. And sure enough, he turned out to be a jerk.
DAVIES: (Laughter). You also write about feral pigs, which you say are the same species as the pigs that we raise on farms. And they're everywhere, right? You say they're a candidate for the nation's most destructive invasive species. Why?
ESTABROOK: Well, you're exactly right. They are everywhere. They're - at last count, they know that wild, feral pig populations exist in 48 states and probably all of them. But think of them. They're - they breed - well, they breed better than rabbits. You know, a feral sow can have 12 piglets every year, and those piglets are ready to breed in less than a year. There's no other large animal that breeds at anything close to that pace.
And then these animals can run 30 miles an hour. They can jump 3 feet high. They can smell a morsel of food 7 miles away. A pig's snout is a marvel of excavating, engineering technology. I mean, they can root up a patch of land in no time. It looks like a bulldozer has been through. They can and do eat anything. So they're ideally poised to take over an area once they get there.
DAVIES: They can really smell a morsel of food 7 miles away? I mean, how do we know that (laughter)?
ESTABROOK: There are people who do this for a living, studying these things (laughter). Not only can they smell it at great distances, but they won't forget it. If years go by and the weather conditions are the same, they will remember, oh, there was a patch of really good berries over that hill a few years ago when the weather was like this, and they'll go back.
DAVIES: And you write about how they can get into a farmer's field, and it'll look like it's been bulldozed overnight. What sort of problems do these present for ranchers and farmers and property owners, and what do they do about it?
ESTABROOK: In the state of Texas alone, pigs do over $50 million damage - wild pigs - $50 million damage per year, just to farms. It can range from, a farmer will plant an entire field with corn, and that night, the pigs will just go down the rows and eat up literally every kernel that he's planted. Pigs can stand on their hind legs and pull the branches of fruit trees - peach trees - down, snap them off to get at the fruit. They can create such havoc in a hayfield that the farmer can't get on the land to cut it and just has to wait until the next year. They're incredibly destructive, and they can do this overnight.
DAVIES: And you spent some time with people who try and hunt, trap and kill them. (Laughter). It's not an easy business, is it?
ESTABROOK: Well, I spent a lot of time in Texas, which has the worst feral-pig problem in the United States. They're absolutely out of control in Texas. They don't know how many, but they think there is at least 2-and-a-half million feral pigs in Texas. And estimates are that they would have to somehow kill 700,000 of those pigs a year just to stay even.
Well, they don't. They kill about 400,000, and they can use any means possible. I mean, they can trap them. They can lure them into pens. They can shoot them. They can and do go up in helicopters. It's an awful pastime, but it's legal to go up in a helicopter and shoot wild pigs with machine guns, automatic rifles. Yet, they're not even close to controlling pigs. They don't know what they're going to do.
DAVIES: And you were saying that they - because the pigs are smart, they've learned to evade, for example, the techniques of hunting dogs and stuff.
ESTABROOK: Well, yeah. You know, the old rules of pig and hunting hound was the hounds would get on the pig's scent, and the pig would run and find a good, defensible place to take a stand - up against a cliff or, you know, the base of a tree where it would stand and then face the dogs and, at which point, the hunters come and dispatch the pig.
Well, in South Carolina, the pigs have learned not to stop anymore. They sort of broke the fundamental hound-hog relationship. They just keep running. And so a few years ago, hunters could successfully control the populations in that area, and now they can't. The pigs have learned, and they have to try other techniques.
DAVIES: And why have we seen an explosion in the pig population? Are they getting away from farms? What's happening?
ESTABROOK: Well, we've always had feral pigs in this country as long as there've been Europeans here. Some of these pigs are ancestors of pigs that were left here by the Spanish conquistadors and explorers in the 1500s. But throughout history, pigs have been leaving farms. In the, you know - until the mid-1900s, farmers typically just left their pigs roaming in the forests, and then come fall, they'd go out and round them up. And so it gave the pigs opportunities to go back to the wild.
And then they introduced European wild boars to hunting preserves. They're the same species, so the European wild boars and the wild - the feral pigs happily interbred. And that continued the expansion. And then hunters would illegally move pigs to new areas so they would have a quarry to hunt. You know, as one scientist said to me, you know, they're an endangered species that have - that has a great group of people supporting them. He said, you know, zebra mussels and fire ants don't have a group of hunters lobbying for them.
DAVIES: Barry Estabrook's new book is "Pig Tales." We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Barry Estabrook. He has a new book about pigs - raising them and all things pig. It's called "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest For Sustainable Meat."
Well, a lot of the book deals with the industrial kind of raising of pigs for slaughter, and let's just talk about that. And what - I would begin with maybe you describing kind of the conditions that a mother pig - a sow who's given birth and nursing piglets - lives in in these places. Just describe what it looks like. What are the conditions?
ESTABROOK: Well, of all the things I saw, the thing that hits me the hardest, that twisted my guts the hardest was when I walked into a low, dark barn in Iowa. And in that barn, there were 1,500 sows - pregnant female pigs - and they were all in individual cages that were too small to hold them. They were like - they were like people, you know, sitting in the seats of one of those regional aircraft. Their sides stuck out through the bars. They could not turn around. They could not move in any way, at all. And that's the way those pigs basically live their entire life.
When they did have their babies, they would move into something called a farrowing crate, which allowed the sow no more room to move. And, you know, you take these intelligent, inquisitive, emotional creatures and confine them to a lifetime - it'd be like being confined to a coffin for a lifetime, or worse than your dog being confined to its travel case for a lifetime. But that's the way 80 percent of the sows in this country live their entire life.
DAVIES: And when they have piglets, how do the piglets nurse?
ESTABROOK: Just before the sows are ready to give birth, they move from these gestation crates into something called a farrowing crates, which is just like a gestation crate with a little, smaller crate beside it. And the sow stays in the gestation part. The piglets live in the crate beside it, and they can nurse her through the bars. This is done just in case the sow might roll over accidentally and crush a piglet. So they really have no maternal contact. The piglets nurse through these - through these bars and live sort of in a separate, little cage.
DAVIES: What happens to the pig excrement, both the sow and the piglets'?
ESTABROOK: In a typical industrial pig farm, both sows, piglets and growing pigs - they're kept on grated floors - hard, grated floors. And the excrement either dribbles or is squished through the grates into the equivalent of a basement directly below them, where it sits - can sit for up to a year. And, you know, creating incredible noxious odors which also happen to be poison. Ammonia, hydrogen sulfide - those are poisonous gases. And they keep the pigs alive by having these huge jet engine-like fans on the end of the barns that are constantly blowing in fresh air, or they could asphyxiate.
DAVIES: And in fact, you describe an incident in which one of the fans failed and an alarm failed to alert the farmer what happened.
ESTABROOK: Yeah, this was a farmer in Missouri, and it happened late one Saturday night. There was - a thunderstorm went through, and his - the electricity failed, and his fans. And for some reason, the generator which was supposed to kick on didn't. And when he woke up Sunday morning to go to church, he discovered that several hundred of the pigs in the barn had asphyxiated in just a few hours. He had to spend Sunday dragging them out and digging a mass grave for his pigs. Interestingly, it was shortly thereafter that he decided he wasn't going to keep raising pigs that way.
DAVIES: They were killed by the fumes rising from this accumulated excrement underneath the floor of the barn.
ESTABROOK: Yes, they can be killed that way. They can be killed, also, if the barn overheats when the fans fail. They really are living in some sort of weird life support system just long enough to reach slaughter weight.
DAVIES: How often do pigs or piglets die, and what happens to them?
ESTABROOK: The estimates are on the typical - a typical confinement farm - one of these big these big confinement farms - around eight or 10 percent of the - of the pigs that go in there to grow, so they're beyond being piglets. They're - you know, they're up and growing, but about eight or 10 percent of those die. And that there's a regular feature of the roads of hog country - they call them dead trucks. And these dead trucks are giant. They look like gravel trucks that go from pig farm to pig farm, and every pig farm has a dumpster. And if you look in the dumpster, you see that it's full of pigs because you figure a thousand things per barn, easily. Death is really part of the equation. And then the dead trucks take them to rendering plants, where they're rendered into fertilizer or other products.
DAVIES: So when you walk into one of these things, and just given - on any given day, there are going to be maybe dozens of dead pigs among the living ones, this huge kind of lagoon of excrement underneath. What is it like to the senses when you walk in?
ESTABROOK: It's like being physically slapped in the face and, at the same time, being smothered. It hits you with a force. You have trouble breathing. Your stomach turns. It's the odor of all that excrement, it's the odor of the dead pigs, and it's the odor of just these - this confined space. It's like nothing I've ever smelled. It gives new meaning to putrid, and it's also very unhealthy. They've done, again, research on people who work in these barns, and they regularly suffer respiratory disease as a result of breathing that stuff.
DAVIES: One of the things you write about are the - are the diseases that rip through these pig populations. And part of that, I think, is related to the steady diet of antibiotics that are - that are injected into their food. Why is that done? What is its impact?
ESTABROOK: Well, virtually all the industrial or the vast majority of industrial pigs in this country are fed a steady, low level of antibiotics in their food, whether they're sick or not. The industry says it's a prophylactic measure to keep them from getting sick. Other people will say that, no, the industry just does that because it does make the pigs grow a little faster. But the end result is the same. These conditions are ideal for the mutation of bacteria into bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics - the type of bacteria that kill about 23,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC - and this is just the perfect incubator. You couldn't create a better incubator in a laboratory than a building crowded with thousands of stressed animals who are being fed low levels of antibiotics every day.
DAVIES: And what are the pigs fed?
ESTABROOK: An industrial pig - it can be fed - (laughter) it's pretty ugly. The basic ration is corn or soy, but to that, they can add rendered pig meat, making them cannibals. They can add something they call feather meal, which is what it sounds like. It's the feathers that come from chicken and turkey slaughterhouses. They can be fed chicken manure, the litter off the floor of chicken houses because, you know, manure has protein in it. So there are all sorts of things that are - that are, you know, quite frightening in the diet of an industrial pig.
DAVIES: Barry Estabrook's new book is "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest For Sustainable Meat." Stay with us. After a break, he'll talk about what it's like to live near an industrial pig farm and how some are learning to raise pigs in a more humane way. That's coming up. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Barry Estabrook. He's an award-winning food writer whose new book is about pigs and modern pig farming, where thousands of animals are kept in crowded, squalid conditions and fed a diet that includes low-dose antibiotics. His book is called "Pig Tales."
You know, when you were writing about the effects of these low-level antibiotics that are given to the pigs, you wondered if there might be industrial-scale pig raising operations that do it differently and have a different kind of outcomes, at least with respect to not giving them antibiotics. And you say in Denmark they do. What did you find there?
ESTABROOK: Well they - they're not allowed to give antibiotics to healthy pigs in Denmark, and they haven't been for several years. So I went over there and spent a few days with pig farmers. And the first thing I realized that I wasn't quite sure of before is it's every bit as industrial and big - the pig industry in Denmark. It's not quaint, little guys in thatched-roofed houses. They're huge, industrial barns. Denmark is a major pork-producing country and competes - often outcompetes the United States on international markets.
In fact, if you eat baby back ribs in this country, they're probably from Denmark. But so it's a sophisticated industrial model, yet somehow they can raise these animals - raise them profitably without resorting to these sub-therapeutic, constant low doses of antibiotics, which are destroying the antibiotics that we depend on for human medicine. So if they can do it - and they don't even, you know - they've reported very minor problems. If they can do it, one wonders why our industry can't or won't.
DAVIES: You know, there's a passage from your visit to Denmark, and I want to read this because I was so struck by this. You were describing, you know, after the pigs were slaughtered, kind of the process. Robots gut the animals and so on. And then you say, (reading) humans separated the intestines from the other viscera and loaded them for immediate shipment to a separate facility to be cleaned of feces and made into casings. The heart, lungs, livers, tracheas and kidneys were destined for China and Vietnam, who use them in sausages. One man removed the pigs' pinkish-white brains by hand and plopped them into a plastic tub. Within hours, they would be on an airplane to China.
Is that the practice everywhere?
ESTABROOK: Yes. You know, this is a big, international business - big pig. I mean, look what happened to our own largest pork-producing company in the United States, Smithfield. It's now a subsidiary of a major Chinese corporation. And so these pork processing plants are almost like little - if you see the shipping containers, it's like a mini United Nations, you know, bits of the pig going off in all directions depending on the dietary habits of various nationalities.
DAVIES: Does this industrial kind of pig farming produce a different kind of pork? Can you taste the difference? Is there a difference in nutrition?
ESTABROOK: You can certainly taste and detect the difference when you eat it. These industrial pigs are primarily bred to grow very, very fast. That's the goal. That's job one - fast and efficiently. And to do that, you're going to get thick, course muscle fibers. An old heritage preindustrial breed grows much more slowly and creates fine, fine muscle fibers. And so the meat is very different.
DAVIES: So you're a food - I mean, you're a James Beard Award-winner. You can really tell the difference. What does a pig raised in the old way taste like - or pork raised in the old way?
ESTABROOK: Well, what convinced me to write this book was a pork chop. And I'd never had - this was several years ago - but I had never had a heritage pork chop, an old - from an old-fashioned pig breed that had been raised on pasture. And when I had it, it was an epiphany not unlike the difference between a pale winter tomato from the supermarket and an heirloom from the garden. There was that profound a difference. First of all, it was juicy. There was none of that sort of saw-dusty texture that a commercial pork chop often gets. It was incredibly juicy, and it was rich. It wasn't the other white meat. It was quite red. The fat didn't have that - sometimes pork fat has a - I think it's, like, a flat, dull taste to it. This was sharp and just incredibly good meat.
DAVIES: Now, when you're raising thousands of pigs on a farm, it creates a different set of conditions for your neighbors in the countryside, and you write about this. You tell us about a woman - I think her name was Elsie Herring. What was her experience?
ESTABROOK: Elsie Herring grew up in a poor African-American part of North Carolina. And as soon as she graduated from school, she got out of there and went to New York to make her way in the world. When she retired, she came back to her home to take care of her mother and brother. And in the meantime, a giant pig farm had moved in next door. And she recalled the first Saturday, when they were sitting out trying to enjoy a little cool breeze, and this incredible, unearthly stench came over their property, to the point where they had to run inside and shut all the windows. And it just continued to get worse. She would go out and be mowing the lawn and all of a sudden she would think that it was a little shower starting. And it was a shower, but it was a shower of pig manure. They couldn't put clothes on the line anymore. They couldn't have a cookout. They couldn't have a barbecue. And it was all because, in that area, the way the pig farmers empty these pits of sewage - they spray the manure into the air in these big - they're called manure cannons. And they look like giant fires hoses that they blasted as high as they can get it into the air and let it fall on fields. But, of course, it also blows in the wind, and if you happen to live next door to one of these operations, you know, you get - it falls on you.
DAVIES: So it's sprayed as fertilizer or simply to dispose of it or both?
ESTABROOK: It's sprayed to dispose of it. It's nominally fertilizer, but, especially in North Carolina, which is the second-largest pig-producing state next Iowa- especially in North Carolina, the crops can't absorb the amount of manure that's sprayed - not even close to it. So it's really a way of getting rid of it any way they can.
DAVIES: It's hard to imagine something more distasteful than a mist of pig manure coming at you. Did you actually experience this?
ESTABROOK: Well, I certainly experienced the smell, but I didn't - I didn't - I didn't - thank God - get the experience of being sprayed, no. But these manure lagoons are everywhere in North Carolina. And they're also in an area that's predominantly poor and African-American. In other words, people who really don't have - don't have a political voice. And there's been research done showing that the pig farms are intentionally placed in these areas.
DAVIES: And so we have these lagoons, I mean, literally lakes of pig excrement, and sometimes they spray the stuff to get rid of it, but sometimes the lakes themselves create problems. There was one where a lagoon burst, right?
ESTABROOK: Well, unfortunately, you're right. The - it's a - what they're involved in is kind of a race against time because these things fill up with manure. And if you can't spray faster than they're filling up, you get in trouble. So during times of hard rains in North Carolina, hurricanes - when they're approaching, when you're going to get a lot of rain on top of the existing amount of manure that are in these lagoons, sometimes the manure simply gets ahead. The dikes burst and the area is inundated with raw manure, killing fish, ruining rivers and, you know, flooding across roads, people's properties.
DAVIES: Now, when Elsie Herring encountered this massive pig farm next to her and experienced these awful effects, I mean, she figured surely somebody in the government - there must be some rules that are being violated here. And she went to regulatory authorities. When did she discover?
ESTABROOK: If it weren't so serious, it would be a comedy of bureaucratic inefficiency. She went, first of all, to the water commission - the water pollution commission. And they said nope, nope, nope; you'll need to go to the air people. And the air people - she went to the air people and the air people said no, no; you'll want to go to the Department of Agriculture. And she kept getting the runaround and the runaround. And the only time she got any reaction was when the lawyer representing the farmer next door to - who was doing this threatened to take out a restraining order unless she stopped complaining. And it went right up through the - through the - through the state legislature, and she really got no satisfaction. She is still, to this day - and it's been, you know, over 20 years - she still can't hang her clothes out.
DAVIES: As these farms have opened and these problems have gotten more attention and there have been lawsuits and, you know, you've written about it, others have written about it, and you write that the water supply of Des Moines was compromised by some - some issues related to hog farms, is there momentum growing for more regulation?
ESTABROOK: Yes. I definitely see a trend with people realizing that the government agencies are not going to act. They are pretty much allies with big agriculture. And the only way to get results seems to be - to be going through the courts. The case in Iowa is - it's ongoing right now. The city of Des Moines's waterworks is suing three counties upriver from Des Moines for allowing this pollution to flow in the water that the people of Des Moines drink. So you've got these hog farmers, who are making profits, dumping their raw sewage - essentially dumping their raw sewage into the river. And then, downstream, you've got the people of Des Moines, who aren't making a cent from those hog farms, who are paying millions of dollars a year to make their water drinkable. And it's getting to the point where the people at the waterworks in Des Moines are concerned that they're not going to be able to keep up. They've had such close - several close calls in the last couple of years when, you know, they were sitting there looking at their instruments and gauges just praying that the levels of contamination could be kept under control. And luckily they managed, but there were sleepless nights.
DAVIES: Barry Estabrook's new book is "Pig Tales." We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is writer Barry Estabrook. His new book is "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest For Sustainable Meat." Well, you did meet a number of people who raise pigs differently. You want to describe what they do?
ESTABROOK: Well, there's people who raise pigs as pigs. They understand the animal. And they raise pigs in a way that's natural for the pigs, that allow the pigs to express their instincts, that allow them to get exercise, that allow them to eat proper food. And it's a very small minority, unfortunately, but it's becoming more visible. It's growing, and it's totally different. I mean, I came to the conclusion that pork is either the best meat you can eat or the worst from any perspective - you know, gastronomic, environmental, animal welfare. And it all depends on how they're raised. I ended up at a farm in upstate New York where it's a fully professional farm. The guy, you know, employs three or four people and makes a living, but he raises his pigs totally on pasture.
DAVIES: Yeah, describe what you see there. What's a pig's life?
ESTABROOK: Well, beautiful - it's a beautiful patch of land. It's in the Battenkill River Valley. And the Battenkill is one of the premier trout streams in the United States, and the Taconic Mountains kind of provide a backdrop as a sweeping valley. And it's such a beautiful spot that it was going to be turned into a development full of McMansions for New York City lawyers and merchant bankers. And this young couple saved it, and in order to afford it, they started raising pigs.
And so you go there, and the pigs are wandering around. They live in little Quonset huts that might hold four or five pigs that are scattered over the land. They don't get antibiotics unless they're sick. They are never cooped up. You know, the mother sows are not kept in crates. They live in a great sort of amiable sorority under the trees with a little mud puddle in the center of it. And, you know, the end result is this pork is incredible. It's sold to some of the very best restaurants in New York City.
DAVIES: I guess what's sort of depressing about it is that industrial farming works because it produces so much food so cheaply. And a lot of people really have to struggle to make ends meet, so they're going to go and get cheap food when they can get it. And it would be nice to think there would be a way to raise these animals in a sustainable and humane way that, you know, if not - that can at least compete - maybe not beat the industrial production, but give a somewhat competitive offering. Any chance of that?
ESTABROOK: Well, I think that as well-raised pork becomes more popular and more sought after and less of a tiny niche boutique product, you're going to see prices coming down. But I also think that if - if the laws change and these expenses that big pig farms externalize are reflected in the meat in their own costs...
DAVIES: You mean, like, the pollution.
ESTABROOK: Well, like, the Iowa - the Des Moines, Iowa, example is perfect. Des Moines citizens are paying to clean the pig manure out of their water. Well, if the farms upstream had to pay to do the same thing, their meat would cost more. If you have to stop feeding pigs some of these very questionable ingredients, that's going to cost more. If you allow a pig to move around, you know, that's going to cost more. And just the air pollution, the water pollution, the rivers - if you factor those costs into what seems like very cheap meat, it's not so cheap anymore.
DAVIES: But it's going to be the government that's going to have even the scales by assigning those costs to the industrial producers, right?
ESTABROOK: It's going to have to be the government, and I think the government is going to have to be brought to it kicking and screaming through some of these lawsuits we've - we're seeing coming up.
DAVIES: One more question - you know, you clearly have some affection for pigs and a lot of these of sustainable farmers do, too. And I'm wondering how you square that regard for the animals with, you know, raising them to be slaughtered and then eating them.
ESTABROOK: I think that's it's far worse to raise a pig under horrific conditions, torture for its entire life, drive it crazy, not kill it in a way where it's assured a good, quick death than raising an animal well so that it has as good a life as it could expect and then consuming it. To me, there's no comparison between the two. And I don't have a problem. Pigs and humans - culturally, we've evolved together. Pigs have helped us. We've helped pigs. It's what Temple Grandin calls the ancient contract, and our part of that contract is to do our bit well. The pigs' part of that contract is to provide us with food.
DAVIES: Well, Barry Estabrook, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us again.
ESTABROOK: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Barely Estabrook's new book is "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest For Sustainable Meat." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new book about the 2011 mass murder in Norway. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.