What's Wrong with Eating Pork?

Pigs in pens in the organic pig farming at the Nuova Agricoltura (New Agriculture) farm on October 7, 2012
Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Approximately 100 million pigs are killed for food each year in the United States, but some people choose not to eat pork for a variety of reasons, including concerns about animal rights, the welfare of the pigs, the effects on the environment, and their own health.

Pigs and Animal Rights

A belief in animal rights is a belief that pigs and other sentient beings have a right to be free of human use and exploitation. Breeding, raising, killing and eating a pig violates that pig's right to be free, regardless of how well the pig is treated. While the public is becoming more aware of factory farming and demanding humanely raised and slaughtered meat, animal rights activists believe that there is no such thing as humane slaughter. From an animal rights perspective, the only solution to factory farming is veganism.

Pigs and Animal Welfare

Those who believe in animal welfare believe that humans can ethically use animals for our own purposes as long as the animals are treated well while they are alive and during slaughter. For factory-farmed pigs, there is little argument that the pigs are treated well.

Factory farming began in the 1960s when scientists realized that agriculture was going to have to become much more efficient to feed an exploding human population. Instead of small farms raising pigs outdoors in pastures, larger farms started raising them in extreme confinement, indoors. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains:

There has also been a significant change in how and where hogs are produced in the U.S. over the past 50 years. Low consumer prices, and therefore low producer prices, have resulted in larger, more efficient operations, with many smaller farms no longer able to produce pigs profitably.

Pigs are cruelly abused on factory farms from the time they are little piglets. Piglets routinely have their teeth clipped, have their tails cut off and are castrated without anesthesia.

After weaning, the piglets are put in crowded pens with slotted floors for the manure to fall through, into a manure pit. In these pens, they each typically have only three square feet of room. When they become too large, they are moved to new pens, also with slotted floors, where they have eight square feet of space. Because of crowding, the spread of disease is a constant problem and the entire herd of animals is given antibiotics as a precaution. When they reach their slaughter weight of 250-275 pounds, at around five to six months of age, most are sent off to slaughter while a small number of females become breeding sows.

After being impregnated, sometimes by a boar and sometimes artificially, breeding sows are then confined in gestation stalls that are so tiny, the animals cannot even turn around. Gestation stalls are considered so cruel, they have been banned in several countries and in several U.S. states, but are still legal in most states.

When the breeding sow's fertility drops off, usually after five or six litters, she is sent off to slaughter.

These practices are not only routine but legal. No federal law governs the raising of farmed animals. The federal Humane Slaughter Act applies only to slaughter practices, while the federal Animal Welfare Act explicitly exempts animals on farms. State animal welfare statutes exempt animals raised for food and/or practices that are routine in the industry.

While some may call for the more humane treatment of the pigs, allowing the pigs to roam on pastures would make animal agriculture even more inefficient, requiring even more resources.

Pork and the Environment

Animal agriculture is inefficient because it takes so much more resources to grow crops to feed to pigs than it would be to grow crops to feed to people directly. It takes about six pounds of feed to produce a pound of pork. Growing those extra crops requires additional land, fuel, water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, labor, and other resources. The extra agriculture will also create more pollution, such as pesticide and fertilizer runoff and fuel emissions, not to mention the methane that the animals produce.

Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society calls domestic pigs, "the world’s largest aquatic predator," because they eat more fish than all the sharks in the world combined. "We’re just pulling fish out of the ocean to convert it into fish meal for the raising of livestock, for pigs primarily."

Pigs also produce a lot of manure, and factory farms have come up with elaborate systems for storing solid or liquid manure until it can be used as fertilizer. However, these manure pits or lagoons are environmental disasters waiting to happen. Methane sometimes becomes trapped under a layer of foam in a manure pit and explodes. Manure pits can also overflow or can become flooded, polluting the groundwater, streams, lakes and drinking water.

Pork and Human Health

The benefits of a low-fat, whole foods vegan diet have been proven, including lower incidences of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The American Dietetic Association supports a vegan diet:

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

Because pigs are now bred to be leaner, pork is not as unhealthy as it once was but is no health food. Because they are high in saturated fats, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends avoiding red meats, including beef, pork, and lamb.

Aside from the risks of eating pork, supporting the pork industry means supporting an industry that endangers public health and not just the health of people who choose to eat pork. Because the pigs are constantly given antibiotics as a preventive measure, the industry fosters the rise and spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Similarly, the pork industry spreads swine flu, or H1N1, because the virus mutates so quickly and spreads quickly among closely-confined animals as well as to farmworkers. The environmental issues also mean that pig farms endanger their neighbors' health with manure and disease.