Factory Farming: The True Price of a Pork Chop

By , Michael Fröhlingsdorf and Udo Ludwig

Photo Gallery: Industrial Pig Farming in Germany Photos
Henner Rosenkranz/ DER SPIEGEL

Germany slaughters 58 million pigs a year and has built an efficient meat industry second only to the US in pork exports. Its optimized breeding, feeding and killing system churns out wondrously cheap cutlets -- but at a hidden cost to the environment and our health.

Meinolf is about the best thing that can happen to a sow. As boars go, he is relatively inconspicuous. He is seven years old, weighs 122.5 kilograms (270 lbs.), and the fat on his back is exactly seven centimeters thick. But he does have one shining talent: He has sired many a perfect piglet.

Meinolf is a "top genetic boar," one of the most productive animals at the Weser-Ems Pig Insemination Center in northern Germany. The facility advertises the impressive animal in one of its catalogs, which is filled with technical information about fattening and slaughter performance formulas, feed conversion ratios and lean-meat content. The 148-page catalog is something of a pin-up calendar for hog farmers, with 16 boars featured on each spread.

The company produces and markets 1.5 million vials of sperm a year, making it one of Europe's largest pig insemination centers. To ensure that Weser-Ems remains a success, Meinolf, like many of his fellow boars, spends day after day in a sterile stall, and the only thing he is permitted to mount is a so-called phantom.

Meinolf stands at the beginning of the distribution chain in Germany's pork production industry, which has been growing steadily for years. Success in the pork industry requires sacrifices from each of its participants: the animals, the producers and their employees. In the end, consumers also pay a high, albeit hidden price for the meat made in Germany so efficiently and cheaply.

The representatives of the meat industry, including farmers, feedlot operators and slaughterers, often feel misunderstood and unfairly criticized. Their critics, on the other hand, have strong arguments against the industry's global game plan, because the system also inflicts massive harm on human beings, animals and the environment.

Environmental Risks

For instance, the liquid manure from pig feedlots poses problems for groundwater. Other problematic issues include the widespread incidence of animal cruelty and the need to import massive amounts of feed from places like South America, where rainforest is burnt down to create farmland.

But that isn't the whole story. To keep barns disease-free, antibiotics are often used preventively. This leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which will eventually pose a serious problem to humans when diseases are no longer treatable.

And then there are the highly efficient slaughtering factories, such as the one owned by Clemens Tönnies in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is increasingly under fire for its alleged wage dumping and slaughtering on an industrial scale. The pork industry is a massive, humming machine, and its operations reach from the vials of sperm from a breeding boar like Meinolf to gelatin production plants somewhere in China or Brazil.

Christian Henne owns the old Deitersen farm in the southern part of Lower Saxony, about halfway between Hanover and Kassel. Henne raises piglets and sells them to various feedlots. He has about 700 sows in his barns, which produce approximately 18,000 piglets a year, according to a carefully calibrated schedule.

Tuesdays are "in-heat" and "insemination" days. That's when Henne's boar begins putting on a show of sorts for the sows, although his job is merely to get them in the right mood. He walks back and forth in front of the sows as they lie in their narrow, individual bays.

This behavior stimulates the receptive sows that are in heat, allowing Henne and his employees to insert purchased sperm into the sows from behind, using a long plastic pipette. One €2.50 ampoule of sperm is used per animal, with the goal being for each sow to produce a litter of 12 to 13 piglets. "It's optimized production," says Henne. Optimization is everything.

Growing Appetite for Meat

The industry has to meet strong demand. Germans consume 39 kilograms (86 lbs.) of pork per capita each year. The average German also consumes another 22 kilograms of meat from cattle, chickens, turkeys and other animals.

Man's appetite for meat is growing continually and globally, in both Germany and the developing countries of Asia and South America. In Germany, 85 percent of the population eats meat and cold cuts daily or almost daily -- a number four times as high as in the mid-19th century. Pork consumption alone has almost tripled since 1950.

This trend in meat consumption is evident on the refrigerated shelves of supermarkets nationwide, which are filled to brimming with meat products -- sealed, prepackaged and available at rock-bottom prices. One German supermarket chain, Rewe, sells packages of four marinated pork shoulder steaks for €3.49 ($4.80) apiece. Netto, a subsidiary of the Edeka chain, has five steaks on sale for €2.39. Even the European Union uses terms like "excessive supply and availability" to characterize the meat industry. But this availability comes at a cost that isn't reflected in retail prices.

Agribusiness is about increasing production, about pigs processed per hour, about growth, about quantity over quality. Unnoticed by the public, there has been a fundamental change in livestock farming. Animal and meat production has become one of the most productive areas of agriculture.

In industrialized countries, it amounts to more than half of total agricultural production. Barns containing 2,000 pigs or 40,000 chickens are no longer a rarity.

The supporters of this industry have long felt it unnecessary to discuss these changes. But now there is growing resistance to what some see as ordinary farming and others call factory farming. Critics keep asking the same questions: Is this form of meat production the right one? Can animals be pumped out like mass-produced goods? Is this necessary? And, most of all, is it moral? What is going wrong in this distribution chain, which is geared toward perfection and yet is creating new problems in many areas?

Breeding and Piglet Production

A veterinarian checks the sows to see if the insemination process in farmer Henne's barn was successful. If his ultrasound device indicates pregnancy, the animals are marked and the waiting begins. A sow has a 110-day gestation period before giving birth to a litter of piglets. Until then, the animals are kept together in groups in a so-called waiting barn. Keeping the animals in groups has been required by law in the EU since the beginning of 2013.

Farmer Henne does what he can to give his pigs comfortable lives. About 35 pigs are kept together in each bay of the barn. Some time ago, Henne installed dividers for the loners among the sows so that they could spend time alone. Chains and ropes are provided to encourage the animals to play.

About a week before the birth date, the sows are moved to the farrowing shed. They lie in circular iron pens called farrowing crates, which restrict their movements and prevent them from turning to the left or right. These crates look unwelcoming but are designed to prevent the sows from accidentally crushing their piglets.

A sow is allowed to be overdue for no more than one day. After that, the birth is induced hormonally. Otherwise the entire system would be disrupted. Just as insemination is always done on Tuesdays, the schedule requires sows to give birth on Thursdays. Breeders have been so successful that sows often produce more piglets than they have teats.

Henne's farm treats its livestock better than many other farms. Most pigs are still kept in individual crates for all but a few weeks a year. Animal rights activists are sharply critical of the narrow, metal crates, in which the pigs have almost no room to move around. And according to a study by the Eurogroup for Animals, a Brussels-based animal welfare group, only 73 percent of German pig farmers have changed their practices to comply with the new requirement to keep pregnant sows in group pens.

A sow is usually slaughtered once it has produced a number of litters, because some of its teats become so worn that they no longer release equal amounts of milk, so that the piglets can no longer be fed uniformly. A sow is "unproductive" after five or six years, at the most, and is sent to the slaughterhouse. Her "normal" life expectancy would be about 15 years. But what's normal nowadays?

Castration Without Anesthesia

The life of a piglet is also tied to a strict plan. Piglets are allowed to remain with the mother for their first 28 days. Then they are sorted by size and moved into the so-called nursery barn, or what Henne's employees jokingly call the "kindergarten wing." For the next six to eight weeks, the farmer's sole objective is to have his pigs put on as much weight as possible. About 400 grams (roughly a pound) a day is ideal.

During this period, the animals are vaccinated and given ear tags, so that they can be identified at any time in the future. Their teeth are clipped and their tails are docked to prevent the animals from injuring each other. In addition, most of the more than 20 million male piglets have their testicles cut off in their first few days of life to prevent their meat from later acquiring an offensive odor known as boar taint. In conventional pig farming, castration is usually done without anesthesia, although the animals are given a pain medication called Metacam. An EU ban on this practice is not expected to take effect until 2019.

"What we do here hasn't had anything to do with consumers' romantic notions for a long time," says farmer Henne. His industry has changed dramatically, he explains, but it hasn't kept the consumer in the loop. He now gives tours of his barns to groups of schoolchildren and pre-school children. "We have nothing to hide. But we have to make money in our jobs, just like anyone else."

Feedlots

Horst-Friedrich Hölling has 4,000 pigs in his barn, and yet he still notices when one of the animals isn't feeling well. "They get pale when they have digestive problems," he says. Sometimes their bristles become coarser when they're sick, and when they have a fever they seem lethargic. "Technology does a lot for us nowadays," says the tall farmer from Salzhemmendorf, west of Hildesheim in northern Germany. But it's also important to have a good eye for problems, he explains, because it helps farmers "notice when an animal is sick."

And that's critical in Hölling's business because, as a feedlot operator, he doesn't make any money with sick animals. Some of Christian Henne's piglets end up in his finishing barn, where they quickly grow to become large and heavy animals. Their weight quadruples in only four months, from 30 to between 110 and 120 kilos. Farmers refer to animals as "fast-growing" if they put on 850 grams a day. Some breeds, however, grow so quickly that their bones can't keep up. The animals become too heavy to support their own frames, and their legs fracture as a result. From the animal's perspective, being fast-growing isn't always pleasant.

Between 12 and 15 pigs are usually kept together in each pen. There are crevices in the floor for the drainage of urine and feces, so the barn can be kept relatively clean and dry. Finishing barns have become bigger and bigger in recent years.

A good place to see how it's done is the southern Oldenburg region, the true center of the industry. More than two million hogs live in the Vechta and Cloppenburg administrative districts alone, in the unspectacular landscape between the northern German cities of Bremen and Osnabrück.

The 'Liquid Manure Belt'

The region, where there are more pig barns in some villages than houses, is referred to as the "liquid manure belt." Pigs produce about 1.5 cubic meters of urine and feces in their short lives, creating both an esthetic and a logistical problem. According to a survey by the chamber of agriculture in the state of Lower Saxony, far too much liquid manure is produced in the southern Oldenburg region. Although liquid manure can be used as a fertilizer, it also seeps directly into the region's groundwater.

Geologist Egon Harms is familiar with the consequences. He works for the Oldenburg-East Frisia Water Association in the town of Brake, one of Germany's largest water utilities, where he is in charge of clean drinking water. His district includes the "liquid manure belt."

"Nitrate levels in near-surface ground water have increased alarmingly in the last seven or eight years," he says. And although some wells had to be sealed in the 1980s because of high nitrate levels, the association was able to minimize the problem at the time by digging deeper wells and reaching agreements with farmers.

But now things are getting more expensive. In the last few years, the association has spent €50 million to buy up land in water protection areas to safeguard the quality of tap water. To keep levels well below legal limits, nitrate-laden water has to be mixed with clean water, and farmers need to be compensated. All of this comes at a price. "It translates into our customers paying about 10 cents more per cubic meter of water," says Harms.

The survey by the state chamber of agriculture, which Christian Meyer, the state agriculture minister, plans to unveil this week, shows how dramatic the deluge of liquid manure has become. Pig feedlots in the two districts of Cloppenburg and Vechta alone produce 7.4 million tons of the material a year, but less than half of it is permitted to be spread on local fields. The rest should be transported to regions where less liquid manure is being generated. That would require about 120,000 trips by tank truck.

Growing Criticism

In reality, some state government officials suspect that farmers may not be adhering to the fertilizer regulations and are secretly allowing more liquid manure to seep onto their fields than is good for the environment. To address such concerns, Meyer, a member of the Green Party, wants to start checking disposal documents. "The liquid manure numbers show that the limits of growth in southern Oldenburg were exceeded long ago," says Meyer.

This rampant growth is starting to affect public opinion about industrial farming. For many people, this intensive agriculture is literally starting to stink. The town of Damme, with statistically one of the highest concentrations of animals in Europe, is a case in point.

The town was constantly covered by a cloud of smog, and even some farmers were fed up with the expansion of neighboring farms. Five years ago, it addressed the problem by imposing building regulations on farmers for the first time. Other businesses in Damme were having trouble recruiting skilled workers, because no one wanted to live in the midst of pig farms, says Mayor Gerd Muhle. "People are no longer quite as accepting of factory farming."

In fact, the construction of new barns is increasingly becoming a political issue, even in rural areas. Local residents fear for the value of their homes, are worried about bacteria and odors and feel that their quality of life and health is threatened. Four years ago, people in the eastern city of Magdeburg formed a network called "Farms Instead of Factory Farms." The network now consists of 250 groups, clubs and associations.

Eckehard Niemann, one of the initiators and the spokesman of the Rural Agriculture Consortium, sees the organized resistance against local expansion plans as a great success. "This year alone, we were able to stop the construction of 28 factory farms in the area."

But at what point does a barn become a factory farm? At 100, 500 or 1,000 animals? Does a pig really care whether there are three or 300 bays in his barn? And doesn't professionalism increase with the size of an operation?

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1. Environmental Risks
Jim in MD 10/23/2013
The problem with manure is real at this scale. In the US Midwest, runoff is ruining rivers. The low wages for slaughter could be raised a bit, but it still is unskilled labor that few want to do if they don't have to. In the US, few native-born citizens want that hard labor at better wages. What the article doesn't address is that EU agricultural subsidies underwrite factory farming. The only way for smaller farmers to make a living is to process meat more thoroughly into value-added products. Unfortunately, the EU and US can't find a way to remove the subsidies but support agriculture.
2. optional
danm 10/23/2013
Very good article. I also fear the super bugs we are growing with this overly agressive use of antibiotics. The risk just doesn't seem to be worth the reward by any metric I can imagine. Second, there is no need to eat meat every day. I was raised to eat meat at least twice per day. It was just a cultural thing. But as I grew older I realized I was happier and felt better when I ate less meat. Don't misunderstand me. I am not a vegitarian and I would never tell others what they can or cannot eat. But I would simply like to offer myself up as an example of a normal person who is happier with a more moderate meat consumption.
3. Ethics
johann84 10/23/2013
This raises a number of questions about ethics I think. Poor animals....
4. A fascinating article on a subject that is not usually detailed
fung.pee 10/24/2013
This article has illuminated so many of the dark corners of the pork business, without stopping at the excessive use of drugs or the cruelty to animals. Th stark contrast between the German farmer farmer encouraging visitors and the USA where, increasingly, legislation is protection the abusive farmers. This article filled out many of the questions I had after reading MotherJones articles which frequently features articles on food production.
5. antibiotic use
mgallmendinger 10/24/2013
The writer completely missed the main reason so much antibiotic is used... The reason the animals grow so fast is that less energy/calories are expended by the animal in combating normal exposure to bacteria. Imagine giving your babies, children..doses of antibiotics when they are not even sick...they would also grow much larger as well... Without the antibiotics, the pigs would most likely grow like any wild boar, at a slower rate, and develop immunities through normal natural exposure to different bacterias..
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