“Pork-Making”

The transition from traditional pig husbandry, “pigmanship,” to raising pigs by factory methods began with the invention of industrialized slaughter in the 19th century, but it was only recently that it transformed the way pigs were treated throughout their lives. The most devastating new methods began in the 1960s, and they have changed the way that pigs are raised more thoroughly than any other development in the history of farming. The following timeline charts the growth of industrialized farming from the 1800s to the present day:

1827 – Chicago’s first industrial slaughterhouse opens.1 Slaughtering and butchering animals on assembly lines promotes an approach to farming that views pork as just another factory product and pigs as raw materials.

1879 – The invention of refrigerated boxcars allows animal slaughter to become even more centralized.2 The scale and speed of industrial slaughter reaches unprecedented proportions and begins to attract the attention of a wave of new “muckraking” journalists who aim to expose hidden social problems.

1906 – Upton Sinclair’s famous work of muckraking journalism, The Jungle, documents atrocious conditions in slaughter and processing for the first time. With the phrase “pork-making by applied mathematics,” Sinclair captured the cold, cruel logic that was turning pigs into production units:

They had chains which they fastened about the leg of the nearest hog, and the other end of the chain they hooked into one of the rings upon the wheel. So, as the wheel turned, a hog was suddenly jerked off his feet and borne aloft.”

At the same instant the ear was assailed by a most terrifying shriek. … The shriek was followed by another, louder and yet more agonizing. … And meantime another was swung up, and then another, and another, until there was a double line of them, each dangling by a foot and kicking in a frenzy—and squealing. … There were high squeals and low squeals, grunts, and wails of agony; there would come a momentary lull, and then a fresh outburst. …

Meantime, heedless of all these things, the men upon the floor were going about their work. Neither squeals of hogs nor tears of visitors made any difference to them. …

It was all so very business-like that one watched it fascinated. It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics.”3

1960s – Following the lead of the poultry industry, the hog industry makes a rapid shift to industrializing not just slaughter but the rearing of pigs. Farmers close up their pastures and put pigs permanently indoors; a diversity of heritage breeds is replaced by a few genetically engineered animals; veterinary care for individual animals is abandoned in favor of drug-laced feed; and the earthy smell of a well-run farm gives way to a toxic stench that makes breathing difficult.

1970s – By 1978, 90 percent of pigs are raised in some kind of confinement, and by 1979, two-thirds of pigs are in total confinement systems.4 The hog factory farm has become fully entrenched.

1980s – Smithfield Foods begins an unprecedented rise to dominance in the pork industry, putting thousands of independent pig producers out of business while generating large-scale animal suffering and environmental problems. From 1983 to 2000, Smithfield’s revenues increase from $570 million to a stunning $6 billion, while the number of independent hog farmers decreases by 6,000.5 During roughly that same period, Smithfield moves into North Carolina and increases the state’s hog population by almost five times to 9.6 million, while small hog farms decline from more than 9,000 to less than 1,500.6

1990s – By the mid-1990s, the backlash against factory farming that began 30 years earlier with animal protection advocates spreads to the business community. Niman Ranch begins to provide traditional hog farmers with a way to stay in business by providing marketing support aimed at conscientious consumers.

2005 – Human Rights Watch conducts a report on working conditions in the industry for the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. They find staggering cruelty and indifference, and call conditions in the slaughter industry “the most dangerous” in America for workers.7

2007 – Smithfield, under rising pressure from consumer groups and new animal protection laws, takes a small step forward—slightly reducing the intensity of hog confinement for the first time in their history. The company announces that gestation crates (which confine pregnant sows in a space so tight that they cannot turn around) will slowly be phased out. Still, the stranglehold of factory farms on pork production continues.

Today – More than 97 percent of pork comes from factory farms. Niman Ranch—the largest national supplier of pork from pasture-raised pigs—still represents only a minuscule portion of meat sales. The entire company’s revenues, including from their cattle and sheep operations, has only now topped $100 million. Niman Ranch’s revenues are less than 1 percent of Smithfield’s, but even this represents an achievement and a new threat to factory farming.

Moving Farming Forward – The fight against the factory farm has reached unprecedented strength: Businessmen have joined activists; environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace have exposed the evils of factory farming to a wide audience; major research institutions such as the Pew Commission have argued for an end to intensive confinement for the first time; both vegetarians and selective omnivores have swelled in ranks; and animal protection groups have developed sophisticated new corporate campaigns. The cruelty and devastation caused by factory farms is at an all-time high, but so is our resistance. The next years will prove decisive.

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  1. Donald D. Stull and Michael J. Broadway, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America (Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004): 23.
  2. ibid.
  3. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1906): 35.
  4. Peter Singer and Jim Mason, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (Emmaus, PA: Rodale, 2006): 3.
  5. Donald D. Stull and Michael J. Broadway, Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America (Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004): 21.
  6. ibid.: 58-60.
  7. Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, and Tears, 2004.

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