As the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and, now, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, it appears Barry Estabrook is one exposé shy of taking down BLTs once and for good.
“You’re not the first one to observe that I have the makings of a trilogy,” jokes Estabrook, who’s the most affable award-winning investigative journalist I’ve ever met.
Estabrook won two James Beard Foundation Awards for food writing and is one of six 2014 inductees to their prestigious Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TheAtlantic.com and eight annual Best Food Writing anthologies.
While the idea for Tomatoland came from the worst possible example of the fruit—a pink winter tomato flew off the back of a transport truck on a Florida highway, narrowly missing Estabrook’s windshield, and when it hit the pavement at high speed, instead of bursting, it bounced—Pig Tales was inspired by a paragon of pork.
“It was when I ate a really good pork chop [from Flying Pigs Farm of Shushan, New York] that I realized Big Pig had been taking advantage of my ignorance for all these years, by giving me inferior, dry pork that was the sort of meat equivalent of those winter tomatoes—nothing like the real thing. So that’s how I got mad at Big Pig,” he says.
By “Big Pig,” of course, he means the stuff of PETA nightmares: industrialized American pig farms with a thousand sows to a barn, crammed into crates not big enough to accommodate turning around, on slatted floors so their feces drop into fetid pools—“like allowing all of your household’s excrement to accumulate in the basement,” Estabrook writes.
In Pig Tales, it gets worse for these intelligent, sensitive animals; for the neighbors whose water and air are irrefutably polluted by mega-farms’ poor waste management practices; for the meatpacking workers, often immigrants, who are given increasingly beastly tasks and denied workers’ compensation when their bodies rebel. But, as Estabrook shows—most notably through a trip to a Danish pig farmers’ collective—it doesn’t have to be that way.
Thoroughly researched and thoughtfully written, Pig Tales is the kind of book that should upset Big Pig, which is not above threatening and intimidating former employees and whistleblowers, as Estabrook shows. He has never been threatened for reporting, but a powerful pork producer’s lawyers did get him ejected from the spectators’ gallery of a Winchester, Illinois courthouse. (Hence the book’s first sentence: “A pork chop nearly got me thrown in jail.”)
“I’ve been called a muckraker by people meaning it as a compliment and people meaning it as a slur,” Estabrook says. “I guess if you write 100,000 words about pigs, you come into muck quite literally, quite often, but I don’t [consider myself a muckraker]. I consider myself just to be a curious eater, trying to find out how our food comes to us, on behalf of the readers.”
Pig Tales will satisfy fans hungering for a follow-up to Tomatoland, as well as anyone who wants to get a handle on where their pork comes from. As for where the industry is headed, Estabrook is optimistic: he predicts a ban on gestational crates for sows, improved slaughterhouse working conditions, and additional measures for mitigating environmental impact in the near future. By then, he hopes, Pig Tales will be out of date.
“The best thing about [Tomatoland] is that it’s totally out of date. What was just starting to be a little glimmer at the end of the tunnel of hopefulness at the end of the book, that these [farm workers] were getting some progress, has become this blinding light.,” he says. “All the big tomato companies are now part of this program to improve wages and working conditions, many big food retailers have signed on—up to and including WalMart, which is the biggest grocery store in the country—and then McDonald’s and all the fast food places. A third-party independent auditing firm processes hundreds of grievances that would never have been heard before. People are getting what amounts to a 50 percent raise, which takes it from being a job where you can’t come close to making ends meet to being a sort of crummy job, but at least a surviving salary. It’s a radically different industry,” says Estabrook.
If the same can be said for Big Pig five years hence, “nothing would make me happier,” he says.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.