The Conscientious Omnivore: Pork

Author’s Note: If you are new to our site, please read the preface to our Conscientious Omnivore series first. We know this stuff isn’t easy, and we know you can only do the best you can with the resources and capacity you have. But it’s important for you to know where your Good Food comes from, and to be able to make educated, informed decisions. Our intention isn’t to shock, shame, or bully you—merely to show you what the factory farming system works so hard to keep its customers from knowing. Apply this knowledge how and when you are ready (and read the rest of our series for more information on how to do just that).

Pork Farming Today

Pork might be one of our most beloved meats—just whisper the word “bacon” and you can expect a crowd of fanatic omnivores knocking down your door. There are a lot of misconceptions about pigs—that they’re stupid, dirty scavengers. But did you know that pigs are actually incredibly clean creatures? Given the opportunity, unlike most other farm animals, pigs will designate different areas for bedding and waste. They’re also smart (maybe even smarter than your dog), playful, social animals that love to roam and forage; their snouts ever-searching the earth for food while traveling up to several miles per day.

Unfortunately, conventional farming (factory farming)—which produces over 97% of pork in the U.S.—fosters an environment which completely removes pigs from their natural diets, behaviors, and social structures.

Factory farms are not nurturing environments that flow with the changing seasons, supporting the natural cycles of life and death and growing strong, healthy animals.  Annually, over 100 million pigs are raised and slaughtered in the United States in order to facilitate the average American’s pork consumption of 44 pounds per year. The staggering majority of these pigs endure inhumane living conditions that lead to a host of health problems and, undoubtedly, a miserable quality of life.

Housing and Health Concerns

When allowed to live naturally, sows (female pigs) spend the majority of their day grazing, walking or rooting, and only about 6% of their time lying down. In the factory farming, system, however, breeding sows are confined to gestation crates—metal confinements barely larger than their bodies—for the majority of their 4-month-long pregnancies. Their piglets are weaned after a few weeks, and sows are usually impregnated again right away, often reliving the pregnancy-birth-impregnation cycle continually for 3-4 years before they are slaughtered.

Gestation crates impair sows’ health by restricting exercise and forcing them to urinate and defecate where they stand. These conditions can eventually lead to respiratory disease, cardiovascular problems, digestive issues, and severe urinary tract infections. Sows held in such stalls also show signs of severe psychological distress and frustration, biting the bars of their cages and exhibiting behavior similar to clinical depression.

Even those factory-farmed pigs not in gestation crates spend their lives, from birth to slaughter, inside. They never once feel the sun on their face or the earth beneath their feet. Instead they live in overcrowded metal buildings with bare, concrete slatted floors, often with no straw for bedding due to the difficulty and cost of keeping it clean. This type of confinement often leaves these normally intelligent, playful, active animals bored, sedentary, and unable to engage in normal social behaviors.

Boredom and inactivity leads to aggressive behavior such as nosing or biting other pigs. This abnormal aggressive pig behavior has become so commonplace that piglets’ tails are routinely docked (sliced off) and their teeth clipped to minimize the damage they cause to one another in crowded pens.

Drugs and Feed

Pigs are natural omnivores whose snouts are designed for rooting and foraging. Left to their own devices, pigs will seek out things like roots, mushrooms, fruit, grasses, rodents, snakes, and insects for food.

Pigs raised on a factory farm, however, are not fed their natural diet. Even though pigs thrive on high-fiber diets, conventional farming provides them with finely ground, low-fiber diets in order to reduce feed costs. This unnatural diet makes pigs prone to gastric ulcers, among other health issues.

Factory-farmed pigs are also routinely given feed additives (similar to human steroids) to help them grow quickly and leanly, and antibiotics to combat the myriad of health issues that arise from their poor living conditions. In fact, in the US, 80% of the antibiotics sold in 2009 were for use on livestock and poultry—not humans.

The sheer volume of antibiotics being used may pose serious risks to public and environmental health, primarily because it may contribute to antibiotic resistance in pathogens that cause illness in people. Up to 90% of all antibiotics used for humans and animals are not fully digested or broken down, leaving them to pass through the body and enter the environment intact through waste. Once in the water, these drugs can get into people.

Evidence suggests that this over-use of antibiotics is helping to spread drug-resistant strains of diseases such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant S. aureus), salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli, which can cause humans serious illness and death.

Our Environment

The environmental impact of these large-scale factory farming operations affects not only the pigs and those who work there, but the towns in which these farms are located. Toxic gasses from large-scale factory pig farms cause neighboring residents to suffer from headaches, sneezing, stuffed nose, burning eyes, neurological, respiratory and intestinal diseases. The runoff from pig factories creates nutrient overload, causing huge fish kills in rivers and coastal waters.

And then, there’s the poop.

A factory farm with 5,000 pigs produces about 25 tons of raw fecal waste every day. Pastured animals stagger their manure across acres of grass, but how do factory farmers deal with the waste of thousands of animals held in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)? In the U.S., the manure (containing high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus) is pumped into nearby open-air lagoons or tanks, or sprayed onto nearby fields. This has polluted the environment and harmed both human and ecological health.

The Ideal

Happy, healthy, responsible-raised pigs are pigs that can express their natural instincts, dietary habits, and social behaviors. Pigs’ most natural state is to roam freely with other pigs in an open, un-crowded, pastured area with the ability to root about for food, socialize, and maintain their normal standard of cleanliness. Raising pigs in this manner eliminates the health concerns, environmental damages, and even the aggressive behaviors that require inhumane practices such as tail docking and teeth clipping.

As a Conscientious Omnivore, there are several steps you can take to ensure that you are purchasing and consuming humanely-raised, healthy, sustainable pork.

  • Vote with your dollar: You may want bacon on your cheeseburger at the local fast-food place, but remember what that bacon means, and what you are consciously supporting when you eat meat that comes from a factory farm.  This effort will have impact even if just one person at a time votes with their dollar, and avoids all factory-farmed pork.
  • Know your Good Meat buzz words. Search for pastured pigs, raised organically (either certified organic, or confirmed antibiotic and feed additive-free by the farm). Pigs should be allowed ample space and availability to roam (a door in their crowded barn which rarely actually opens does not qualify as “access to the outdoors”), free access to their natural diets (even if they are supplemented with healthy feed, as pigs most often are), and a humane slaughter. And don’t be fooled by pork that says, “Hormone-free!”—pigs are not allowed to be given growth hormones by law in the U.S. If you’re not sure how what kind of environment your pork came from—ask! If the producers can’t or won’t tell you specifics, avoid their products. (For more Good Meat buzz-words, refer to this free PDF.)
  • Know before you go: The internet can be an important tool for locating high quality pork. Pretty much every restaurant has a website these days, and many restaurants, especially those who care about the quality of their meat, provide detailed information about their sourcing. Take the same care when purchasing pork at the grocery store. Look for meat from producers like Niman Ranch whose owner literally wrote the book on humane pork, or U.S. Wellness Meats, who worked with a local farm to created the first Whole30® Approved bacon just for us. Finally, don’t assume that just because you’re buying pork from a health food store that the pigs have been raised humanely. (Whole Foods pork is usually only Step 1 or 2 in their 5-Step Animal Welfare scale). Do your research!
  • Support a nose to tail philosophy: As a society, we have become accustomed to eating only a fraction of the animals that give their life to provide our food. Consider this; “There are only two tenderloins on a pig, and 20 people want them. There is only so much bacon to a pig, and virtually everybody wants that. You can’t buy a pig and ask for it to be all cut into chops and bacon — pigs just don’t work that way.” Waste not, want not.
  • Raise your own: If you have the space and the time, consider raising your own pigs. What better way to know the exact conditions animals are raised in than to control those conditions yourself? Start here.

 Questions about how to become a more conscientious omnivore? Resources for sourcing healthy, happy pork? Leave your note in comments below.


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  1. Tim says

    Quick question but what is your opinion on supplementing the pigs with whey? I get my beef from a farm that I have visited and talked with the farmers for awhile before purchasing. The cows are grass-fed, in pastures free to roam and the chickens are truly cage free. (The farmers use an old school bus as the chicken-coop).

    I ask because I saw the conditions of both the chickens and the cows but the pigs were kept on another piece of the property. The farmers said they let them forage as much as possible but have to supplement with whey (they produce cheese) because the pigs are just too tough on the land to let them forage all the time. It would be great to be able to get everything I need from this one farm but wasn’t sure on the whey. Thanks

  2. says


    In the case of pigs and chickens, it’s nearly impossible in most climates to have truly pastured animals. Most often, their diets have to be supplemented, at least during the cold winter months. In this case, as pigs are omnivores, I don’t have an issue with their feed including natural byproducts of the farming system (like the leftover whey from the farm’s cheese making). Farmers will often supplement with corn, grains, or soy for the same reasons – a common practice that is what it is when it comes to raising pigs and chickens. The important part is finding farmers who treat their pigs well, give them healthy and appropriate living conditions, and allow their pigs to eat as much of a natural diet as possible before supplementing their feed.

    In this case, it sounds like you’ve found the ideal farm – and your visit confirms the conditions under which the animals were raised, and the food they are fed. This is about as good a situation as you can have when it comes to omnivorous animals.


  3. says

    If anyone in the Ottawa, Ontario area is looking for a great source for pork, look no further than Upper Canada Herigate Meat ( Barbara Schaefer is producing some very good quality product, I’ve never tasted anything like it. I’m not affiated with the farm other than being a very happy customer! Hope you don’t mind the plug. =D

  4. mary says

    was wondering if I buy a pig from a reputable farmer and they send for processing, I don’t have the option of not having my bacon cured. is this an issue?? they do give you the option of having the meat smoked or not, which do you suggest?

  5. says

    Mary, all bacon is cured in some form or another, whether they used nitrates/nitrites or other forms like salt, lactic acid starter culture, and celery juice. You may want to ask which method they use, for your own knowledge. Same with the smoking process – although I tend opt on the side of simpler, which means no smoking.


  6. says

    Wow, heart wrenching that kind if treatment is even allowed! Glad we get our pork from our local farm where we see the pigs running around in the forest living happy, playful lives. My daughter loves going on our weekly trips to the farm to say “hi” to all the animals.
    Thanks for the informative post – will be forwarding to a few friends!

  7. Glenn says

    Question about Whole Foods, even Step one is no cages or crates and they never use Antibiotics. Doesnt the mere fact that the animals arent being treated with antibiotics show that their living conditions are much better than factory farming since they aren’t getting sick? I try to get local meat from local farmers as much as possible but sometimes I can’t. Is my inference about the no antibiotics meaning better quality of life and a healthier animal incorrect?

  8. says

    This is absolutely disgusting, the kind of treatment being given to pigs, even prisoners get better treatment in jails. My heart goes out to sows, who remain imprisoned and confined in the worst possible manner. Pigs should be allowed to exist in their natural habitat, in which they will grow and thrive naturally.

    Strict laws should be passed banning this extremely disgusting practice.

  9. Sarah McCure says

    I am so greatful that you are posting on these issues..I am very lucky to have a local heritage pig farmer who makes amazing speck, bacon, sausages with no filler, coteccino sausage with the bits and pices and all nitrate free. I know that you suggest not eating sulphites in the whole 30 because of likelyhood of reacting, but long term, nitrates in processed meats like bacon and ham are associated with stomcah cancers. It used to be “an only at Christmas thing for us”, but now with the producers or truely free range, preservative free products, I can add a little pork to our diets with a clear concious and know that harmful preservatives are absent…Yay.

  10. Jennifer says

    Great topic! I believe that these types of discussions are absolutely crucial in order to educate the public on the truths of our fractured and unhealthy food system (I live in Canada). Not only for our health but the health and welfare of animals, workers, and the environment. We as consumers need to lobby our government to support small scale local farms instead of suporting GMO crops, CAFO’s and big Ag and Bio-tech (all in the top for greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption) We’ve cut out a lot of luxuries (cable, vehicle usage, going out, etc) and got creative with the cuts that we buy. Pork belly, hocks, jowls, roasts, whole chickens, lots of eggs, wild caught fish and local organic and in season vegetables. We make a lot of stews, curries and soups, which stretches it out a bit. We use the fat from our roasts for cooking. I shop exclusively at Farmers Market during the spring, summer and fall for all produce and proteins. I order directly from those same farmers during the winter months. I shop exclusively at a small locally owned shop for other stuff like Olive Oil, Coconut Oil, and veggies during the winter when the Farmers Market is closed. For me, the changes came on gradually. Now that I’ve tackled my foods, I’m on to becoming more sustainable (growing some of my own produce on my apartment balcony, making my own cleaning products that are chemical free and reducing my overall carbon footprint.) I say, make small changes slowly and at your own pace. It all starts with education!

    @Ken – That’s where I buy my pork from. Barb is terrific!!!! I actually just picked up my pork order from her on Friday last week. Since you’re in Ottawa, may want to join our Ontario Primal Facebook group. Email me at jenn.m.harrington (at) gmail (dot) com for more details.

  11. mary b says

    We raise our own pigs (and chickens & turkeys), and it is actually fun to watch them run, jump & play. They really love to root around looking for good stuff to eat. They are pretty social, and the dog loves them. They get our garden “waste” and all of our household scraps, but do need a bit of feed, too. Funny they really do not care for oranges, and we had been given some bagels, they shoved those right though the fence!
    Seeing the pictures here make me feel so much better that we are not supporting the CAFOs.

  12. says

    I’ve asked this question before on another page, but why not give it a whirl again?

    There are many people (myself included) who want to live a healthier lifestyle, but are about as broke as a joke. In other words; living on a food stamps budget. The prices of grass fed, pasture raised, and even organic protein is very high for someone on such a restrictive budget! I can only afford my conventional whole foods from my discount grocery store in order to have enough to eat. Trying to but meat tat is $8-$10 a pound to feed a family on a restrictive budget feels almost impossible!

    My question to all of you is this; what am I supposed to do? I eat healthy, but with conventional products and my health is good. What can you recommend to individuals and families who don’t have a lot to spend? How?

  13. says

    In my state there are some “options”, but they are seasonal. Our Farmer’s Markets accept food stamps and WIC, and there prices are not as “high” as the Whole Foods type places. But sometimes the Farmer’s Market is not always an option, like in communities with food deserts. Its a real thing- google it! Especially in the inner city.

    So again, suggestions?

  14. Alena says

    I’m surprised no one has asked ‘don’t cows get the same treatment?’ The answer is yes, they do. Almost all meat in grocery stores is factory-farmed. In the book this site suggests ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Saffron Foer, he visits many farms: pork, cow, chicken and even fish and explains that there are almost no farms which we could consider ‘organic’ or ‘cage-free.’ Unless you go to a local, small, responsible farm for your meat, you are buying into a system that treats animals like this: even if you don’t eat pork. This means the cows and chickens you eat are most likely coming from places shown above, or worse. Although the focus here in on how bad pork is, the fact that cows are treated the same way in most of the meat-industry is largely ignored. They are also fed the same antibiotics and are kept in no-move crates their whole lives.

    The ‘organic’ label on meat does not necessarily mean those animals were not crated for their entire lives, living in their filth or killed inhumanely. In fact, organic only refers to the feed and absence of CERTAIN antibiotics and additives. As Foer explained in his book, those ‘organic eggs’ still could have come from chickens who were packed into a tiny cage and that ‘organic’ steak could have come from a cow with the same fate. “Organic” is a very vague term coined by the FDA and if blindly believe it is so much different than the pigs above, we are mistaken.

    The responsible omnivore would KNOW their meat, know the farm. Go to your local farmer’s market and ask what the cows/chickens are fed, do they get any antibiotics as supplements, do they get to graze? How are they killed/processed? These questions will allow you to fully understand where your meat comes from.

  15. Betty says

    Been doing a lot of research on pigs and trying to find a good source locally . I read on this thread where you stand on supplementing the feed, the necessity and such. What about the GMO corn/soy grain supplemental US Wellness does with their pork? Is this at all a concern? It seems against the organic recommendations of the program. Maybe I’m still new to all the buzz words, I just found it contradictory. where do I draw the line?