Durban - Free-range is often used to refer to animals left to roam freely as opposed to living their lives in enclosures or cages.
Grocery store labels such as “organic” and “free-range” go down well with consumers concerned about how their food is grown or reared.
Those not content with the label seek out locally produced products at farmers’ markets and products that come from small farms.
Essentially, what they’re looking for is ethical food, which is at the heart of the Going Whole Hog campaign, which was initiated early this year by non-profit organisation Activist, whose partners include Beauty Without Cruelty, African Centre for Biosafety, Urban Sprout, Compassion in World Farming, EcoBuzz and Greenhouse.
The campaign is aimed at informing consumers about genuinely free-range and ethical pork in South Africa.
Their message is that the benefits run from farm to table for all concerned as not only do the pig and farmer get a better deal but the meat is tastier and healthier for you.
Before the advent of the modern-day confinement system, where pigs are kept separated in metal cages that do not allow movement, pasture was an absolute essential for a successful swine operation.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence in pasturing pigs for both welfare reasons and to supply niche consumer markets.
“Factory-farmed pigs live in concrete cells with no outside exposure and no entertainment,” says nutritional therapist Sara Bilbe.
“Pigs are fairly intelligent animals and this lack of stimulation in these cells leads to high stress levels and therefore high illness.
“A naturally foraging pig would be feeding not just on grain and legumes but insects, grubs, leafy greens and grasses, which are all high in omega-3 oils and would change the composition of the pork fat that we eat.”
The argument is that a natural foraging pig stays healthier and is allowed to grow to a natural weight rather than being forced to gain weight at an abnormal rate with growth hormones.
“Although the pig may grow a bit slower and be leaner than factory-farmed pigs, it’s actually a benefit to the consumer, who will be eating meat of a better fat and protein composition without the hormones and antibiotics.”
Bilbe says factory-farmed pigs are often fed cheap soya, corn and grain, which the pig’s digestive system can’t handle in such large amounts, and this poor diet increases the need for antibiotics as health issues arise.
“Legally the pig’s feed can contain the hair, skin, blood, intestines and hooves of other dead animals.
“In the light of the mad cow disease saga that unfolded some years ago, cows are no longer fed dead cattle indiscriminately, but pigs are often still fed pig carcasses and even cow carcasses.
“Pigs are very sensitive animals and when they are confined and, no doubt, stressed and unhappy, they release stress hormones – adrenalin and cortisol – just like humans, and you can rest assured you are going to consume a hefty dose of stress hormones in your conventionally raised bacon,” says nutritional therapist Nicci Robertson.
“Not only that,” adds Going Whole Hog researcher Katherine Tudsbury, “while pasture-reared pork is better for your health, the animals, the environment and the farmer – it also tastes better with a higher nutritional value.
“Studies suggest that pasture-reared animals have higher levels of nutrients like vitamins A, D, E and K and omega-3s.
“For a leaner meat, with lower sodium levels and higher levels of B vitamins, consume pork chops.”
Dietician Katherine Megaw says: “Animals raised on pasture eat what they are designed to eat.
“Like humans, animals that eat the proper diet – one that is geared toward their unique digestive systems – tend to be healthier.
“In addition, these animals are allowed to grow to a healthy weight naturally, rather than being fed growth hormones. Growth hormones in animal products are currently being scrutinised due to the increased incidence of childhood obesity and early puberty and even breast development in boys.
“When you eat pasture-raised pork, other meats and dairy, you are definitely nurturing your body with good foods.”
“I do believe that for retailers to start making free range and ethical meats more available to consumers we, as the general public, need to have a louder voice and put pressure on these suppliers,” says Marie Petrelis, a nutritional therapist from Path2Health.
“We need to start supporting smaller outlets that make the effort to source wholesome and ethical foods, such as local butchers and greengrocers, and also place some serious demands on the bigger supermarket chains.”
Nationwide, Pick n Pay is stocking “free-range pork” at some stores. Woolworths already sells a limited range of free-range pork in Gauteng and has expressed interest in stocking pasture-reared pork in other provinces.
Activist suggests it’s worth looking at the terms used – free range vs pasture-reared – while engaging with the supplier to figure out exactly what conditions the pigs are farmed in.
So the next time bacon and eggs come to mind or you smack your lips at the thought of a tasty pork chop on the braai, consider your own well-being as well as the plight of the pig, for a more flavourful experience. - The Mercury