Tuesday, May 19, 2009

pigs, seals, slaves, and hypocrisy

An excellent letter in yesterday’s Globe and Mail from Prof. Dana Medoro of the University of Manitoba, complaining about the previous day’s op-ed piece by a veterinarian, who had exhorted readers to respond to the swine flu scare in the following fashion: “put pork on your fork.” Here’s part of Medoro’s response:

For almost a decade, I have been studying the pork industry in Canada. … Ninety per cent of pork production occurs in massive facilities; the pigs are confined in cages and fed by technicians. So I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Cate Dewey, a professor of swine health management, wrote that “pigs infected with the influenza virus are reluctant to get up or walk around,” because the statement implies that the pigs are permitted to get up and walk around in the first place.
Most Canadian pork comes from pigs confined in cages so small that the animals can’t even turn around. They defecate through slats at their feet and stand up only to eat. These animals barely remember how to use their legs when they are forced to walk to trucks transporting them to slaughter. So sure, go ahead and put pork on your fork, as Dr. Dewey urges. But don’t think it came from a sunny little farm inhabited by happy pigs.

Here’s the (less well informed) letter I had written to the Globe on the same theme:

Veterinarian Cate Dewey’s op-ed piece (Pig Farmers Are Victims of a Swinish Disregard for the Truth—May 15) is an extraordinary piece of cheerleading for factory farming. “Put pork on your fork,” she exhorts us, while saying nothing about Canadians’ legitimate concerns not only about swine flu but also about the environmental impact of the vast lagoons of feces that modern day intensive pig farming produces, the way in which antibiotics are used in the industry, and the well being of the animals themselves on these intensive farms. Her only concern is for the health of humans—and on this point it is notable that she asserts rather than argues that a sick pig will never make it to Canadians’ dinner plates, and that “Canada's food standards are among the most stringent in the world.” If the Globe is to give space to cheerleading for factory farming interests, it should also give space to representatives of environmental and animal welfare groups—or to organic, free-range pig farmers—to present the other side.

It’s great that the Globe printed a letter in response to Dewey's piece—though it would be better still if they would allow those concerned about animals’ welfare to contribute entire articles. Interestingly, the Globe’s coverage of this year’s seal hunt controversy has so far followed the same pattern. A full column by Lysiane Gagnon in yesterday’s paper devoted to “European seal hunt hypocrisy,” and then a (very good) response in the next day’s letters. Nicholas Read makes the central point very clear in his letter:

What Lysiane Gagnon fails to realize in her charge of hypocrisy against the European Union and its stand on the seal hunt is that where animal protection is concerned, everyone’s a hypocrite (European Seal Hunt Hypocrisy - May 18). There isn't a nation on Earth—including and especially Canada—that treats its animals well. … So what is she suggesting? That everyone ignore everyone else's wrongdoing and let the suffering continue? Better that a little cruelty ends somewhere. And if that somewhere happens to be Canada, it's something we as Canadians can all be proud of.

The hypocrisy refrain is one that is sounded again and again on this sort of issue; a CBC Radio opinion piece last week hit the same note, suggesting that the Europeans had no right to criticize our seal hunt when their treatment of geese in the making of foie gras was much more cruel. Interestingly, such arguments were also a staple of arguments on behalf of American slavery in the nineteenth century; a great deal of time was spent arguing that outsiders—Europeans in particular—had no right to criticize slavery, since what they were doing in various parts of the world was arguably just as bad, or worse. Such evasion is often a sign that no good arguments from first principles exist on one side of a debate. And perhaps too, when supporters of cruel practices are reduced to such arguments, it may be a sign that those practices’ days are numbered.

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Congratulations to the CBC, though, for having a vegetarian respondent to their promoting of pork (see below for the background) appear on the Eyeopener radio program last week—and for giving her a sympathetic hearing. As host Jim Brown said, they try to win over all their listeners, “one by one if need be”—and they don’t do a bad job of it!


  1. That might be enough to get me off pork.

  2. Great blog Don! I have a pig-blog myself, and I'd advise the immaterial girl above never to eat pork again--at least not the kind that comes from factory farms. In particular, never eat sausages or hotdogs: these pork products come from the badly hurt, bruised pigs. Blek.