Remember the story of the three little pigs – each attempting escape from the wolf in their houses – one built of straw, one of sticks and one of bricks.
The one built of straw did not fair well. One huff and one puff and I will blow your house down.
But he was the happiest of pigs.
I am watching Masterchef and the contestants are delivering food to a table of food producers on a property using the produce of the people they are feeding. Matt Preston asks the farmer about the pork – throwing around the words organic and free-range. All the farmer gets out is that the “pigs are raised on straw.” Cut to the next shot of lavish food. I think how lost on most viewers would be the concept of “raised on straw.”
But here’s the thing. Pigs love straw. Uncut, long, manipulable, regularly-changed straw. Being omnivorous means they are curious searchers. Being omnivorous means you will investigate all manner of things in search of food. There are many reasons why the raising of pigs in the modern tradition poses welfare concerns. When your natural desires are thwarted you are driven to do unnatural things. When we place pigs in their brick houses, away from the wolf, we take away their ability, but not their want, to explore the world. Deprived of rooting material they nuzzle one another. They chew each others very interesting and mobile tails. For what else is there to do?
Coles seems to want us to be seduced by their “sow stall free” pork products. But do people even know what this means. A “sow stall” is a small confined area designed to restrict the movement and hence promote the growth of the gestating sow. Being “sow stall free” does not mean that the sow, once having given birth, is not once again confined to a farrowing crate. Given a choice a pig might build a nest in the straw for several days before giving birth. Housed, all she can do is pace and paw the ground. The farrowing crate is an enclosed area with bars supposed to protect the piglets from the squashing weight of the sow as she struggles to lie down slowly on a concrete floor.
How much better would the life of a pig be if her need for straw was recognised? Straw, more so than toys or dangling chains, does more to improve the welfare of intensively housed pigs than just about anything.
Driving in the hinterland of NSW I see pale skinned creatures dotted over tussock land. I am surprised and delighted to see they are pigs. This is so rare a sight. Not only do these pigs have straw, but also mud and wallowing. Free range pigs – doing what they love to do – building houses out of straw.
Back home I visit the Fremantle markets and ask the seller of a supposedly free range pork where the pork is from. I wonder if she will mention the Byron hinterland pigs. It seems a natural question, and one I am expecting a detailed answer to. I imagine the purveyor to be selling such a product because they care at least about the conditions in which the animal has been raised. But sadly, she seems perplexed and confused by my questioning. Is their only care the empty assumption that people will pay more to ease their conscience? It is from over east, she offers first. I try again. But where? Perhaps she thinks I am interested in slow miles, so she says she has local stuff too. It is compressed into a vacuum bag without a label. It could be from the moon. Asked about the location of the “local” property she answers, “God knows.”
You would think that selling free range, organic produce would be a choice made out of compassion for animals’ needs and wants. You would think the vendor has thought long and hard about the decision to sell such a product and hope that they had done their research into the product they were selling. Naively, I even think that perhaps they have travelled to the farm to view the animals’ conditions. Do they think that consumers are happy enough with labels telling them a product is “sow stall free” in pretty pink chalk board writing, reflecting nursery rhyme style memory?
What I want to know is: do the pigs have any straw?