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This Little Piggy Went to Market

This Little Piggy Went to Market

As more consumers demand ethically-produced meat, can boutique butchers really feed a population?

Photographs by Kourosh Keshiri.

It all ends up in here. The bits and pieces, the undesirables. The trim. Kept cold in a fridge at minus twenty degrees Celsius, it moves through the silver grinder and squeezes out the front plate, like ribbons of mottled Play-Doh, into a blue Rubbermaid bin. In the basement of the Healthy Butcher on Toronto's Eglinton Avenue, Ryan Klauke looks at the white board on the wall to see which recipes he's following this morning. Three days a week he's here, before most of us are out of bed, to get elbow-deep in these odds and ends. The boombox on the butcher block behind him plays Bach. From the shelf above the stainless steel countertop he selects herbs and spices and pours them into their respective containers: thyme, cayenne, pepper. In go garlic, chopped onions, white wine. He mixes by hand, forming fists and pummeling the meat, making sure the spices don't clump. It's surprisingly unyielding, and cold enough to be painful. But it beats the hell out of sitting at a desk nine to five, which he did for eight years, working in customer service for a major bank. When he left he took a picture of the stack of unfinished paperwork sitting on his desk. Klauke doesn't like dealing with customers anymore, so he's in the basement with his Philip Glass CDs and buckets of soaking intestines.

Klauke forms four little patties of sausage meat and heads upstairs to the kitchen. He heats a frying pan on the industrial gas range and slides the patties into the oil. This is quality control—ensuring the sausage fill is seasoned correctly before it's packed into casings. Morning tastings are another job perk, and for an avowed carnivore like Klauke, "It's never too early for meat." Back downstairs, he packs the first batch of fill into R2, a metal cylinder that works like an upside-down trash compactor: inside the cylinder, the floor rises toward the lid, forcing the meat mix out a metal nozzle on the front. Klauke feeds a length of casing—pork intestines—onto the nozzle and it bunches up like slimy white panty hose. He leaves three or four inches of lead hanging off the tube, leans against a teal lever on R2's side and out shoots the meat—a rope of flesh coiling up on the counter to his left. He makes about five feet of sausage before the intestine runs out and a column of loose mix shoots from the nozzle and splats on the wall. Later he pinches off the rope in eight-inch lengths and spins it to create individual sausages connected by links. Klauke twirls one sausage toward him, one away, one toward, one away, again and again. He pops air bubbles with a bamboo skewer. After this batch, he'll load R2 with another and repeat. He does this all day.

The Healthy Butcher prides itself on buying directly from farmers and devising ways to sell the whole animal, from snout to trotter, rather than just the popular cuts—striploins, tenderloins, rib eyes. Sometimes that means getting creative, but sausages are perennial favourites and a reliable way to use up every bit of miscellaneous meat. In a commercial meat-packing plant, these unsellable scraps would be thrown out, or "rendered" into protein for animal feed. But here they are, jazzed up with colourful spices, squished into intestinal casings and presented with a little bit of flair and sharp marketing. Sufficiently upscale, they fly out of the store and straight onto the grills of gourmands across the city.

Canadians love meat. We buy it by the cardboard box from Costco freezers, or shrink-wrapped from supermarket coolers. We go to M&M Meat Shops and stock up on things called "Fall Off the Bone"TM Pork Back Ribs and bacon-wrapped chicken. Only recently have city dwellers begun to seriously consider the farms raising the animals that end up under their knives. Our meat system relies on a convenient, compartmentalized approach that gathered strength post-World War II, when a generation of North Americans took up their governments' offers of federally-subsidized mortgages and moved to the suburbs. At the same time, federally-subsidized corn encouraged the "urbanization" of livestock, and our meat slowly moved off small, local farms to their own animal cities springing up in Manitoba and Alberta, Kansas and North Carolina.

In these new cities—called concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—livestock was raised cheaply on piles of excess crops, then slaughtered and butchered in high-volume abattoirs and processing plants. "Everything became centrally processed and people lost the connection with their food," says Mario Fiorucci, co-owner and president of the Healthy Butcher. "Now a butcher shop wasn't butchering anymore—a butcher shop would bring in boxes of meat." It made sense to grow that meat, for the sake of both consistency and economy, using an efficient, high-density Henry Ford-style approach. The new model made meat so plentiful and affordable that it was no longer a Sunday dinner treat, and many North Americans now expect meat at every meal.

This situation has started to offend delicate liberal sensibilities, and it's generated a mini-industry of critique, typified by Michael
Pollan
's bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma and its follow-up, In Defense of Food. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation articulated the ties between the emergence of assembly-line fast food and the industrialization of meat production, a concern raised again in the feature-length documentary Food, Inc. And last year, Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals almost single-handedly reignited the animal rights debate.

There's more at stake than just price. Cheap factory farming crowds thousands of genetically similar animals in close conditions. This creates a perfect environment for pathogens to evolve rapidly, and gives the most successful strains a chance to spread like wildfire within—and between—populations. Some of these diseases, called zoonoses, can successfully jump from animals to humans. In response, we've devised myriad complicated ways to keep diseases off the farm and contain them when they do slip in. But animal illnesses remain mysterious, and biosecurity isn't foolproof—as events like the 2005 avian flu outbreak in British Columbia and H1N1 in 2009 harshly reminded us.

While the heightened profile of factory farming has prompted unease among conscientious consumers, upscale options like organic produce and niche-market butchers remain inaccessible to most families. Industrial food production—ten-thousand-sow confinement operations that have made raising pigs a uniform process, just like putting together a Model-T—makes one-dollar pork chops possible. There's just one problem: this system can't last.

Little Piggy

In 1979, when Fred de Martines shipped the first batch of pigs out of his family farm just northwest of Stratford, Ontario, the price paid to him at the abattoir was $1.32 a kilogram. Today that price is $1.16. Consider hikes in the cost of living and oil, and the numbers are staggering—had the price simply stayed in step with thirty years of inflation, today his pork would go for more than triple that price. "That's where the problem comes in, and that's why these big barns were built," says de Martines. "Not because farmers want to look after more pigs, but somehow we have to scratch out a bit of a living."

Small-scale farming is on the brink of collapse. Some boutique-style farms make money thanks to the rising demand for ethically produced meat, but you can't feed nations on $25 rib eye roasts. (Let them eat steak?) To keep supplying meat this cheaply we'll have to import it from countries willing to embrace industrial production, like China and India. Canada's commercial meat farming industry will expire, but the foodie-friendly farmer might live on.

The bank told de Martines that his one hundred-acre farm was too small to survive. He gets up every day and works to prove them wrong. The de Martines family farm sits at the end of a long, shady, tree-lined driveway off 38 Line. The farmhouse was built in 1895. Fred and his wife, Ingrid, have raised all four of their children here since settling in 1979. De Martines has stories about each one of the trees outside his window—oaks he brought back from the Netherlands as acorns in his pocket, cedars he transplanted from Manitoulin Island.

The de Martines family used to raise pigs conventionally—a traditional family-farm approach, with fewer of the trappings of industrial agriculture—and send them to market, but that model nearly cost them the business. Now they also run a finishing operation, taking in about a thousand sixty-pound pigs at a time, feeding them until they grow to market weight and shipping them to the slaughterhouse. None of the pigs in the finishing barn belong to de Martines; other farmers pay for the service. The current group came in about a month ago and de Martines suspects it will be the last. He thinks the company that supplies the pigs is going broke, another casualty of the grim reality pork farming has become.

With demand for pork at an all-time high and expected to double by 2050, pressure to produce is greater than ever, and the margin for error lower. In China, per capita pork consumption increased 45 percent between 1993 and 2005, but American consumers still eat more than twice as much meat as the Chinese. (Canada lags behind these two countries in pork consumption—in 2008, Americans ate thirty-one kilograms of pork per person, compared to Canadians' 9.7 kilograms.) CAFOs allow for maximal productivity with minimal variability by homogenizing growing conditions. Little red barns don't. The biggest meat companies-Smithfield, ConAgra and Tyson in the United States; Maple Leaf and President's Choice in Canada-are successful precisely because they control most aspects of the process.

City dwellers might hope that farmers in the boonies will go back to doing things the old-fashioned way, hastening the demise of
high-intensity factory farms owned by evil corporations. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. "Pig farms in Ontario and Canada are almost exclusively family-run businesses," says Robert Friendship, a professor at the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College. What we think of as factory farms are mostly family operations that have gotten bigger and bigger over the years in order to make ends meet.

In the early 1990s de Martines got out of what he now calls "the tailspin," when other farmers had to keep growing bigger to survive. "The profit margin per animal has come down over the years, and it's still coming down," he says. "So in order for farmers to make a living, instead of feeding one hundred pigs, they had to feed a thousand pigs. Then they had to feed two thousand pigs. And that's how it went up and up and up and now there's some with ten thousand pigs." De Martines' finishing operation might be doomed. Luckily, he doesn't need it anymore.

I first notice the eye, still in its socket. It reminds me that this isn't taxidermy—this is a real pig, from a real farm. Its skin is rosy
and rough to the touch, having just been shaved. Its rump, soon to be ham, bears a fresh purple stamp from the federally-regulated abattoir. Dave Meli, the head butcher here at the Healthy Butcher, flips the side over. Now we're looking inside-the pig is cut clean down the middle. The brain cavity blooms a brilliant crimson, and from its base extends a pale, doughy stripe running the length of the side—the spinal cord. Everything else is a mélange of bright white fat and flesh of various pinks and reds. It's not as compartmentalized as the laminated anatomy poster taped to the freezer door would have you believe, but this pig was obviously healthy and its insides are beautiful. This is a good-looking side of meat, as it ought to be—Fred de Martines carefully raised it on his thriving hundred-acre pig farm.

Meli's block is the penultimate destination of this pig, which will eventually be barbequed, roasted, braised, stewed or smoked, and then eaten. Its life began at Perth Pork Products, the de Martines' farm. De Martines has sidestepped the decline of the pork industry by raising heritage breeds: Tamworths, Berkshires and wild boars, which he sells to restaurants, butcher shops and customers throughout Ontario. The pig I examined was one of his Tamshires, a cross between a Tamworth and a Berkshire. He charges a whole lot more for his meat, and unlike most farmers, spends time on creative marketing. Demand has
only increased since he started. He's considered a leader in this approach to niche marketing pork, and now fields calls from other farmers asking how they can better sell their products. They're beginning to sense the end. "You can see it in the guys' eyes," says de Martines. The H1N1 outbreak was only the most recent nail in the pork coffin. At the height of the swine flu controversy last June, when I call to ask if I might visit the farm where my Tamshire grew up, de Martines has only one question: "Do you feel sick?"

De Martines is worried about biosecurity, a flexible term describing any steps taken to protect food animals from infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Pigs have receptors that allow them to host avian, human and swine influenza and can therefore act as incubators for one, two or all three of these strains. For a healthy herd in close quarters, introducing a virulent infection would be catastrophic: besides making the adult pigs sick and possibly ruining the quality of their meat, the pregnant sows could abort their litters. It could mean financial (as well as emotional) ruin for de Martines and his family.

The word "biosecurity" itself is relatively meaningless—there are no laws that deal with it, no definitive rules dictated by industry
boards such as Ontario Pork. Most farms raise animals behind biosecurity "walls" of varying thickness. These are not designed to prevent animal diseases escaping into the human population; rather, they aim to cocoon livestock from potential carriers of disease like humans, rodents and outside equipment. Biosecurity protocol can be as stringent as ensuring that every vehicle arriving at your farm has been thoroughly disinfected and situating your operation as far as possible from other farms to minimize the spread of windborne pathogens. Or it can be as casual as asking visitors to please stay away if they've got the sniffles.

No uniform procedures exist because the epidemiology of animal diseases remains rather mysterious. No one really knows how infectious agents travel between livestock herds, and so far the process of figuring it out has been largely guess-and-test, says Tim Blackwell, a swine specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs who has written tip sheets for farmers on staying biosecure. He describes the decades-long disease wild-goose chase this way:

We used to think they came in with replacement animals, so we started bringing in new genetics only through artificial insemination and never brought a live animal on the farm again, and still new diseases appeared. Then we found that some diseases were transmitted in the semen, so we collected semen only from boars or bulls that were not disease carriers, and still new diseases appeared. Then we realized some bugs were carried by birds, so we bird-proofed the buildings and still new diseases showed up. Then we realized sometimes the trucks that took the pigs to market had had other pigs that were carrying the bugs already on them, so we insisted on clean trucks, and still new diseases appeared. Then we realized some bugs were carried on the wind, so we put in air filters on the air in-lets. And on it continues.

Initially I thought these pigs sounded like weaklings. Why can't they just fight off diseases with their immune systems, like regular animals? But most commercial pigs raised for food aren't "regular animals" in that sense. In the 1950s, researchers devised a way to significantly reduce the incidences of most major production diseases: they set up special veterinary surgeries attached to clean barns. The University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College was home to one such facility, which remained operational until the early 1980s. Friendship, the OVC professor, was new to the faculty in 1979, and one of his first tasks was to grow the university's herd at Arkell Research Farm using the new technique. "Viruses and bacteria and things, we hadn't worked that out," says Friendship. "But we knew that if you removed the piglet without nursing the sow and raised it independently, you would break this cycle of disease transfer."

Pregnant sows were brought into the surgery, where they gave birth by Caesarian section. Piglets were immediately removed from the mother without nursing and taken into a germ-free incubator bubble, where they were nursed artificially. Unlike humans, who absorb some maternal antibodies in the womb, pigs are born entirely without natural antibodies and must absorb them during the first twenty-four hours of nursing. During that period, the intestine allows antibodies to pass into the blood stream, then gradually closes down. If these sterile piglets were suddenly introduced to normal air, it could kill them. "The trick is to get them out of their sterile environment and into the normal air," says Friendship. The vets gradually introduced infection in miniscule doses. "We gave them a little bit of E. coli, a little bit of Bacillus, like in yogurt, very controlled." Eventually, the piglets moved to an extremely clean barn, where all veterinarians wore gloves, gowns and masks during feedings. One step at a time, they created specific-pathogen free, or SPF, pigs.

Once a large enough SPF herd is established, these disease-free conditions are self-sustaining. New genetics can be introduced through artificial insemination from other SPF herds, and those piglets will be delivered by Caesarian and put through the same process. The method was so successful that no outside animal has joined the Guelph herd since, and the program rendered itself obsolete.

Heightened biosecurity is one consequence of keeping such squeaky-clean animals. Having never encountered most common
infections, the pigs' immune systems are entirely unprepared. A disease introduced to the Arkell Research Farm herd could swiftly destroy it. The sick herd would have to be "depopulated" and "repopulated"—production-speak for killing every last pig and rebuilding the group from fresh SPF breeding stock.

The swine facility at Guelph's Arkell Research Farm is an innocuous grey single-story building shaped like a capital T. Accompanied by Glen Cassar, a vet with a PhD in swine reproductive physiology and my guide for the afternoon, I enter through the main door into a small lobby. To the left and right are women's and men's change rooms. Each door has a white sign reading, "Biosecurity is in Effect!!!"

I enter the women's change room. Into the yellow half-locker go my backpack, my shoes, my dress. Then I hesitate, feeling weird about getting naked in a strange barn, or any barn, really. But over on the men's side Cassar is probably ahead of me, so I lose the rest of it—necklace, rings, hair elastic and all. I step through the first curtain into the brown-tiled shower stall. The water is lukewarm. I scrub down quickly, take a couple of pumps of the blue shampoo from the dispenser and wash my hair, as instructed. No germs can come with me. When I push back the curtain on the other side, I'm in the clean zone. Opposite the showers yellow shelves bear thin goldenrod and lavender towels. It's almost luxurious. I dry off. Now what? On a middle shelf are baskets of cotton panties, roughly sorted into S, M and L. I grab the first pair that looks even close to the right size, with an M drawn in black sharpie on the elastic waistband. They're not my underwear and it feels strange. Next I dig through a pile of assorted bras and pick a black one, the wrong size, but I'm taking too long. I throw on a white t-shirt and hop into a pair of khaki coveralls with an Arkell Swine Research patch sewn over the left breast pocket. I put on a pair of grey socks—the only ones that are paired—and burst through the door into the hall. I'm now inside the biosecure area. My hair is wet and uncombed, and there's mascara streaked under my eyes, but Cassar doesn't even blink. He introduces me to some of the facility staff, and I explain that I'm here to learn about biosecurity. "Yep, this is biosecurity," one employee jokes. "We take a lot of showers and wear other people's underwear."

Although Arkell is home to three hundred sows, 350 weanlings, 350 growing pigs and 350 "finishers" getting ready for market, it doesn't smell compared to other pig barns I've visited in Manitoba and Quebec. Cassar explains this is because of regular pressure-washing and an extremely effective ventilation system. That's another biosecurity feature—if the air isn't circulating, not only does it reek to high heaven, it gets humid. Feces are kicked up and particles stay in the air, prompting pigs (and staff) to develop respiratory infections. Hot, humid air provides ideal conditions for bugs to grow.

One way to avoid bugs is by including low dosages of antibiotics in pigs' feed. Antibiotics can be used therapeutically to treat acute infections, or prophylactically to prevent them. Decades ago, farmers noticed that when their pigs took preventative antibiotics at very low doses they grew much more quickly, and the practice became common in many larger operations. According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, up to 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are now given prophylactically to industrial farm animals. But overusing antibiotics causes increased selection pressure for resistant strains of bacteria—sometimes nicknamed "superbugs." Very little scientific research has been done on the effects of such widespread antibiotic use on the environment, freshwater systems or human health.

What we do know: housing a great number of cows, chickens or pigs in close quarters, where they share food and water and defecate everywhere, facilitates the transmission of potentially disastrous pathogens. Improved biosecurity is a relatively effective response for the time being, but our limited understanding of evolving diseases means that farms can never be completely safe from contamination. "It's putting all your eggs in one basket and then really guarding the basket," says David Waltner-Toews, professor of epidemiology at University of Guelph and the director of Veterinarians Without Borders. Today's best practices for protecting the commercial food system remain part science and part luck—hardly a sustainable system.

From authors like Pollan and Foer to advocacy groups, you don't have to look far to find critics of the New Agriculture. Environmental Defence Canada's (EDC) 2002 report, titled "It's Hitting the Fan: The Unchecked Growth of Factory Farms in Canada," presents dramatic statistics arguing that factory farms wreak havoc on the social and natural environment—the number of farms is decreasing, the number of animals increasing. This trend is corroborated by the Canadian Pork Council, which reports that in 1976 the average farm raised 91 pigs; by 2010 that number was 1,580. There is no consistent definition for "intensive livestock operations," or factory farms, making it impossible to create and apply policies across different jurisdictions. The EDC report calls for a national moratorium on all factory farms until five conditions are met: standards protecting human health and the environment, a ban on non-medicinal uses of drugs and hormones, adherence to a federal pollutant registry, citizen access to the permit-granting process and legislation updating the Criminal Code to include cruelty to animals.

Few would argue with any of these stipulations, but who will pay for them? "That's a very important part that's being missed in the urban world," says de Martines. "They've got demands, and I don't disagree with that, but at least pay us for our expenses." He likens the process to car manufacturing, when consumers lined up scientific evidence and demanded certain features in vehicles to improve safety. They got the seatbelts and the airbags, and the cost of cars went up. "But that doesn't seem to happen in food," de Martines says. "And that needs to change, quickly."

If you want to avoid antibiotics in your meat, only the term "certified organic" has the legal clout to ensure their absence. Forget "natural," "farm fresh," "grain fed," or even plain "organic." Maple Leaf PrimeTM Naturally is "Canada's leading brand of chicken," according to the advertising rhetoric, but "prime naturally" doesn't refer to a specific set of conditions. Ambiguous labelling fosters uncertainty about the relative benefits of one product over another, and clouds the meaning of terms like "organic."

That changed on June 30, 2009, when the intimidatingly-named Canada Organic Regime took effect. Previously, in order to be certified organic, farms had to meet a set of standards outlined by an independent certifying body. In Ontario alone, there were seven major certifying bodies administering seven different "verified organic" stickers. Each of these bodies had its own set of rules for conferring certification, and while they were very similar, the details differed and left room for interpretation. The Canada Organic Regime now sees all certifying bodies accredited under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and adhering to a single "National Organic Standard." The idea is to reduce misleading labelling and encourage international trade. "In terms of market demand, it's going to be a positive thing," says Ted Soudant, president of Field Gate Organics, a collective of over
fifty organic farmers in Ontario. "The demand for organic has grown in every country that it's happened to."

Out in Stratford, I'm sitting down to lunch with de Martines and his daughter Yvonne. I'm their guest, and they refuse to send me out on the road without a proper meal. The spread is impressive—lasagna made by Yvonne, traditional pumpernickel bread, lettuce from their garden, cheese and, of course, ham from a pig that once rooted around barely two hundred metres from the house. We chat about the differences between food in Europe and North America, farmers versus non-farmers, and people who refuse to pay the full value of their food. As I sink my teeth into a fat, succulent slab of pork, I wonder about the real cost of my sandwich. Call it boutique if you like, but it's worth whatever de Martines is charging.

See the rest of Issue 37 (Fall 2010).

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—Foie Gras Wars
—Why Don't We Hunt Anymore?
—Waste Not

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