Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jerking-Off Hogs, or, I Hope You Enjoyed Your Bacon This Morning

The quality of Harper's has declined precipitously over the past few years, perhaps culminating in last month's atrocious article pushing the theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. I am almost certainly not going to renew my subscription. But every now and then, they still manage to publish a really great piece. Such is Nathanael Johnson's "Swine of the Times: The Making of the Modern Pig," in the May issue. I will say that as a vegetarian, I am greatly enjoying telling everyone I know about the beginning of Johnson's article, when he describes people who have the less than enviable job of jerking off pigs for artifical insemination. Yummy!

The real point of the article is to show how the nation's biggest hog farmers are turning the pork industry into the chicken industry--mass production, no respect for the animals, uniformity in product, breeding to the point that the animals cannot survive in the wild, etc. Artificial insemination, and the human labor that goes into it, is just one (particularly visceral) cog in this industrial machine.

There has been no shortage in writing over the past decade on industrialized agriculture. The most known of this literature is Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, which all should read. I don't have a lot to add to this debate, but I do have a couple of points I think are worth making.

First, even though I am a vegetarian, I don't have a problem with people eating meat. If that's what they want to do, that is there choice. I wish they wouldn't, and if publicizing stories of people jerking off pigs helps them stop, great. But if people do choose to eat meat, they should at least be aware of the process that gets it from animal to you. In the modern economy, that process is not pretty. Your pork doesn't just appear packaged neatly in your grocery store. It goes through some very disturbing industrial processes to get there. Reading Johnson, Schlosser, and other writers of America's meat culture should be required for anyone wanting to eat meat.

Second, what I don't understand is why people strive for uniformity in product. Do we really want uniform food? Do we want pigs produced under inhumane, industrialized conditions just so that every ham tastes the same? I don't eat ham so I guess I don't know--but do you all really want every ham to taste exactly the same? Is that a goal of food-buying. I know that I don't want food to be uniform. I like the fact that the varieties of apples in stores has expanded so much over the past 10 years. When I was growing up it was Red Delicious, Gold Delicious, and maybe Granny Smith. All of these varieties basically suck and were chosen for mass marketing because they look good, resist bruising, and have long shelf lives. We sacrificed taste for uniformity. Today, even in just a standard grocery store and certainly in stores like Wild Oats or Whole Paycheck, you can choose between maybe 6-8 varieties. At the co-op here in Albuquerque they sometimes get really funky versions of apples. It's cool, tasty, and when you are trying a new variety, exciting. An apple doesn't taste like something--different apples taste differently. This same process of rejecting uniformity and expanding choice for consumers has overtaken other fruits and vegetables over the past decade, especially lettuce and tropical fruits.
So why then, is the meat industry pushing for more and more uniformity? Does this kind of processing really produce a better tasting piece of pork? Or would you rather have a little adventure with your meat, knowing that slight differences of taste will happen with pigs from different parts of the country, eating different things, and living as pigs are meant to live? The answer sure seems obvious to me.