Book Review: Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for
by Barry Estabrook, review by Chris Walters
“One Iowa pig accosted her owner in a pasture, and through grunts and nudges, led him to a barn where she had just given birth. The farmer assumed she was showing off her brood, but when he turned to leave after congratulating her on her nice piglets, she blocked his way, then walked over to her automatic watering spigot. She activated it, but no water came out. Even though he had never touched the spigot in her presence, the sow knew he would be able to fix it.”
Barry Estabrook’s previous book told the story of tomatoes, a source of nutrition with no observable capacity for learning. Despite the horrors of the labor abuses documented in that work (Tomatoland), and despite the arguably more egregious labor abuses documented here in the chapters on slaughterhouse workers, it is the pigs themselves that raise the stakes in Pig Tales. Described by a researcher as roughly equivalent to a bright three-year-old toddler, pigs generate anecdotes like the one above all the time. Their high level of sentience, illustrated by their feats of memory and intuition, throw into bold relief the ill treatment they’ve received at the hands of people. Putting to one side the matter of killing and eating them, for centuries we heaped opprobrium on pigs merely because they like to roll in dirt, a habit that makes sense, it’s more or less in their natural context. Nevertheless understandable that we made their name synonymous with slothful, disgusting behavior. When we really added gross injury to insult was the last few years, when we devised novel and innovative ways of torturing them.
Estabrook falls firmly within the ranks of those who see nothing wrong with eating meat. Wanton cruelty to animals, on the other hand, culminating in horrible damage to the environment, gets his attention. So do the appalling industrial routines that kick into action after animals leave the CAFOs:
“Upon her return, the supervisor assigned Rios to a particularly dangerous job without training her, instead telling her to ask the worker next to her how to perform the task. The new position involved aligning pieces of meat on the conveyor belt just before they entered a slicing machine, and making sure that her fingers didn’t go into the slicer along with the pork. Rios watched as one co-worker got her sleeve caught and almost had her arm pulled into the blades. Another had the skin peeled off the back of her hand. ‘You had to work so fast. It was dangerous. But I had to do it. Sometimes I got so frightened that I ended up crying.’ She had reason to be scared. In 2001, the year she started working at the plant, a fellow employee fell into a meat blending machine. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration report on the incident listed the cause of death as ‘fatal lacerations.’”
Choosing not to cover too much of the same ground as David Kirby’s essential 2010 history Animal Factory (a book that deserved much more attention than it got), Estabrook gives the plight of slaughterhouse workers the attention the major news media have largely denied them. It is the most horrifying element of the story, and the one most resistant to reform even as litigation, political pressure, and the efforts of sustainable livestock operators such as Russ Kremer nudge the treatment of pigs themselves toward a better standard.
The history of pigs and people touches on so many historical, cultural, ethical and environmental issues that it’s not hard to imagine an author pulling out his hair as he tries to work it all into one whirlwind account clocking in at a few hundred pages. Estabrook pulls it off with agility, and anyone who wishes to root for truffles in the larger story can use this terrific book as a map.
Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook, 2015. W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN-13: 978-0393240245.
This review appears in the May 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.