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Swine of the Times (Harpers Mag)
The Sleezers’ boars live in the first barn I had passed on the way in. It’s located three miles from the other barn, which contains only sows, in order to reduce the risk of the wind blowing pathogens between the two herds. A chain-link fence, topped with razor wire, keeps away people and animals, which are also potential disease vectors. Nothing meant for human consumption comes out of the building; it produces only semen, delivered to a nearby lab via an underground pneumatic tube. The tube carries the fluid in containers that look very much like those at drive-through bank-teller windows.

In the old days, a prize boar might provide natural service to sows on all the local farms. Today, this would be economic suicide for large producers and a literal death sentence for the pigs. The modern pig is so susceptible to disease that producers must take extreme measures to transform their barns into pathogen-free bubbles. The pigs are vulnerable because they live in close quarters; and because they are genetically uniform, a bug that breaches the defenses of one pig’s immune system can hop to the next. A bacterium stowing away between a traveling boar’s toes could wipe out half a herd. Producers expose their hogs to fewer germs when they bring only the semen from outside rather than the whole boar.

Sleezer’s protective measures are not limited to fencing and pneumatic tubes; he keeps new boars in quarantine for sixty days and tests their blood three times before moving them in with the rest of the herd. The Sleezers run the farm as a family, but to avoid transporting germs, only Derrick ever enters the boar barn. The swine also receive a small amount of antibiotics in their feed, which helps them fend off sickness. It’s a controversial practice because pathogens will eventually evolve resistance to the drugs. But almost all modern farms use low-level anti biotics in feed: besides blocking diseases, antibiotics boost animal growth rates.

Other operations often maintain even more stringent measures than the Sleezers do. One company required a father and son who worked in different barns to eat their dinners apart in order to avoid exchanging germs. The most high-tech facilities start their herds with piglets fresh from the womb, delivered by cesarean section, scrubbed clean and nursed by a mechanical sow.


Keeping pigs at just the right temperature allows them to devote every ounce of energy to one purpose: growth. Well, growth and survival. The modern pig is bred too lean to survive Iowa’s winters. The blanket of fat that insulates pigs against the cold does not fetch the price of muscle—that is to say, meat. But producing a layer of back fat takes energy, and energy means feed, which in turn means money. So geneticists have bred most of the lard out of the hog in the last fifty years. Now many of these pigs cannot survive outside the womb of the humming, computerized barn.

Butch led me down the hall, and we peered into two other rooms.

“Look at the uniformity of these litters,” he said with pride, counting. “Two, four, six—ten in that one.”

The piglets looked like they had all been cast in the same mold; they most probably did have the same father. Meatpackers want identical pigs, the better to give customers identical hams. Artificial insemination makes this possible, because breeders can distribute semen from a single exemplary boar all across the country.

This cookie-cutter perfection, however, becomes a liability when a pig gets sick. (If one hog lacks immunity to a disease, it’s likely the others with the same AI father will as well.) But the demand for uniformity outweighs this risk. The more similar the swines, the more easily they fit into the mechanized system, increasing efficiency. For instance, as swine carcasses move down the conveyor belt, at Hormel’s Austin, Minnesota, packing plant, they hit a curved knife, which slices the cylindrical loin from the inside of the body cavity. If the animals aren’t just the right proportions, the knife will hit the wrong spot, wasting meat or cutting into bone.

As with much of corporate Phood -- the demands of the assembly line, packaging, and transport far outweigh any sense of proportion or respect for the animal as a living creature.

I think this perhaps says a great deal:

The meatpacking plant is the model for the efficiencies we associate with factories. After paying a visit to a disassembly line at a slaughterhouse, Henry Ford went back to his Highland Park auto plant and designed something he called an “assembly line.”

whole article is worth a read.

what strikes me is the immense, insane fragility of the entire operation.  all dependent on cheap fossil fuel and high technology, right down the line.  all vulnerable to the point where you can almost hear the cracking of the thin ice.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sat May 2nd, 2009 at 02:11:53 PM EST

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