Friday, October 11, 2013

Indoctrinating the Youth: National Pork Board Spins Yarns About Modern Meat Production

A few months ago I stumbled upon a curious attempt at social engineering.  A website link led me to a children’s coloring book titled “Producers, Pigs & Pork.” Available both as a downloadable PDF or printed booklet, it invites kids to color in the pictures and “learn more about pigs.” 

The storytelling takes place on an elementary level. But given the realities of contemporary livestock production, “Producers, Pigs, & Pork” is quite a tale. We travel with narrator Billy to a 100-year-old farm where we meet fresh-faced veterinarian Dr. Sarah and smiley farmer Jones. Huge feeding silos and windowless barns are outlined for kids to color in. “This is fun!” Billy exclaims. “I’ve never been to a pig farm before.” 

Billy learns that fast growing pigs need lots of corn and soybeans (not forage or food “waste”) to grow to a market weight of 270 pounds. Veterinarians are there to look after animals if they fall ill. And pigs no longer grow up in the mud so they can stay “healthy and happy.”

The veterinarian’s prominence in the story is especially curious. She shows up everywhere, as if she’s an employee of farmer Jones. Meanwhile maps and surveys done by the American Veterinary Medicine Association paint a different picture of the involvement of veterinarians on today’s large confinement livestock operations. In fact, the AVMA has documented a desperate lack of veterinarians in states where livestock production has become heavily concentrated: Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and North Carolina. What’s more, a battle is raging right now over the abuse of antibiotics, dosed to animals routinely in feed and water rations—without veterinary consult. 

In the real world of modern factory farming, the stench from 2,500 pigs jammed into a single hog barn might send Billy running for the door ready to lose his lunch. He might have nightmares after witnessing the crazed repetitive behaviors like bar chewing and pacing that intensive confinement induces in animals who naturally want to spend the day wallowing in mud, rooting for food, and socializing in family groups. 

According to the National Pork Board’s coloring book, “pigs can’t use all the feed they eat, so they produce manure. ... this makes our crops grow better.” But there is no picture for kids to color in of a football field-sized, multi-million gallon manure “lagoon.”  There is no mention that a manure holding pond is more like a cess pool, containing hundreds of compounds including antibiotics, hormones, heavy metals, bacteria, and toxic gases. In fact, an operation like farmer Jones’ pig farm can produce as much waste as do the citizens of a small city.

As the story of “Producers, Pigs & Pork” unfolds, the fantasy mounts: doting veterinarians, happy animals, and healthy industrial hog manure. In one final turn of creative nonfiction, pigs turn into roasts, pork chops, ribs and other cuts—without transport or slaughter.  

This and a number of other coloring books are funded by the Pork Checkoff Program as part of the “Pork4Kids” initiative. The Pork Checkoff Program began with the 1985 Farm Bill and is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its $60 million annual budget for communications, research, and marketing is funded by a processing fee on every 100 pounds of domestic and imported pork. Ostensibly the goal is to raise the profile of and demand for “the Other White Meat.” And “Producers, Pigs & Pork” and other propaganda definitely aim at convincing a new generation of the wholesomeness of industrially produced meat.

It is essential that our children learn the fundamentals of where their food comes from. But let’s not feed them industry-written myths about food production. Children don’t have to confront the nightmarish scenes behind contemporary meat production to understand that there are better ways to raise animals than inside a bright and shiny factory farm—without substance abuse, excessive crowding, and environmental contamination. That will mean telling a different story. Either the actual truth of what goes on behind the windowless walls of modern factory farms or the story of the independent farmer struggling against all odds (and the USDA) to produce a healthy product that truly honors the animal that become food on our plates.