We have suffered all sorts of shortages during the COVID pandemic: first, toilet paper and ventilators; now, lumber and semiconductors.
But, these are nothing compared with what’s next: an acute undersupply of pigs. Yes, brace yourselves for what some jeremiads are calling the porkpocalypse. (The Truth Behind the Great Bacon Shortage of 2022 | The New Republic)
Most of the 130 million pigs slaughtered for meat in the U.S. are raised intensively on factory farms, often in “gestation crates.” These are essentially metal cages with a standard size of 2 feet by 7 feet, not big enough for a hog to turn around.
Animal welfare organizations have been lobbying, with some success, to nearly double the cages’ minimum allowable size. So far, 11 states have adopted the new rule. But, enforcement is spotty, and only about 4 percent of caged pigs are currently benefiting from more spacious quarters.
That situation is about to change porktacularly, thanks, in large part, to a Massachusetts referendum some residents may have forgotten.
In 2016, more than three-quarters of commonwealth voters endorsed Question 3, improving conditions for factory-raised pigs, as well as veal calves and egg-laying hens. Two years later, California passed a similar proposition. Both take effect Jan. 1.
But, they come with a twist. Unlike measures in other states, the two newer propositions ban not just the production of small-cage pork, but also its sale, regardless of origin. That’s a major consideration, since California and Massachusetts together account for nearly 20 percent of U.S. pork consumption.
Massachusetts farmers have little to fear from Proposition 3. Not a single Bay State pork producer uses cages. In the Berkshires, for instance, the half-dozen or so farms with pigs are small-scale operations that treat their residents humanely.
Incidentally, “Berkshire Pork,” which pops up on menus around the world, has nothing to do with our Berkshires. It is a breed of pig that originated in Britain three centuries ago and is prized for its lean, flavorful meat.
The big U.S. pork producers, mostly in the South and Midwest, face a dilemma. They can stop selling their products in California and Massachusetts, but that would mean losing a porkgantuan share of their business. The National Pork Producers Council has asked for federal aid to help pay for retrofitting hog facilities around the nation. No word yet from Washington.
Meanwhile, the pork industry is suing to stop the new rules, asking legislatures to soften or delay them and, inevitably, launching a media campaign. The regulations, producers warn, will cost jobs, create shortages and result in porkflation. A research firm hired by opponents of the new rules predicts that a pound of bacon at retail will soar from about $6 to nearly $10. If you can find one.
A bummer, to be sure, but would it really be a porktastrophe? Bacon is hardly the healthiest food around, and meat production in general is an environmental disaster. There are plenty of alternatives: chicken, seafood, pasta, pizza, risotto, lentils, mushrooms, veggies, tofu, Impossible Burgers.
Nonetheless, people (including me) do like their pork chops, pork loins, pork ribs, pork bellies, pork cracklings and, of course, bacon. Not for nothing did the great philosopher Homer Simpson label the pig “the magic animal.”
Pork is a relatively cheap (for now) source of protein, with a mildness that invites rubs and sauces. The meat generally has less fat and fewer calories than beef. Producing pigs is slightly gentler on the planet than, say, raising cows and steers.
Of course, nobody has asked the pigs about all this. Research (Pigs Are Highly Social And Really Smart. So, Um, About Eating Them... | HuffPost) indicates that members of the even-toed ungulate family Suidae are exceptionally intelligent, sociable and caring animals — up there with dogs and chimpanzees, which humans mostly have the delicacy not to eat.
Besides, pigs are creatures we love to anthropomorphize. You know: Porky Pig, Peppa Pig, Miss Piggy, Babe, Winnie the Pooh’s Piglet, George Orwell’s Napoleon, P.G. Wodehouse’s Empress of Blandings (a prize-winning Berkshire). And don’t forget Wilbur, from E.B. White’s classic kids’ novel “Charlotte’s Web,” whose ending I dare you to get through without sniffling.
So, count me as standing in solidarity with the pigs. Nearly all are brought into this world to serve our gustatory pleasure, so, we owe them at least some gratitude, as well as a measure of dignity and humaneness.
“The greatness of a nation,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Gandhi, not porkcidentally, was a vegetarian.