It’s a Conundrum: The Pig and Us

 

For my own well being I should mention, first, that unequivocally my mom is and always has been a good cook. For sure, there were a few experiments that went awry, but on the whole we ate exceptionally well. That is except for the pork chops. There was nothing good about a pork chop. They were dry, tough, and had as much flavour as a Jesus wafer on a Sunday morning. It didn’t matter who cooked it or whether you were eating at home or at your cousin’s wedding it tasted the same.

I stayed away from pork, well, I stayed away from pork except for bacon, ham, pork sausages, and other charcuterie meats. Because there is a big difference between pork and pork that has been salted, sugared, smoked, and spiced. The later is down right delicious. However, for the lowly pork chop and I we did not reconvene our disappointing relationship until I started working in the health food industry. It was at this point that I found out that pork was parasitical. Ahhh…what?  I’ve had many a food revelation over the last few years and that was certainly one of them. For someone who grew up around pigs, who gently goaded them to “Pig Heaven” on Monday mornings, and tried to stomach them on Monday evenings I had no idea. I was also confused. We were selling humanely raised, pastured pork and yet folks were turning their nose up at the pork chops and the pork roasts, and, yet, still thoroughly enjoying their bacon. Was it because bacon was cured and delicious that you didn’t have to worry about getting parasites? And, if pork was so dangerous, why had I never heard of it before?

The disease is called Trichinosis, and it would probably be a good idea to premise the following by saying, “It is rare!” At least in North America. There are currently about twenty cases of Trichinosis in the United States a year. And, due to improved pig management there is now a greater chance of getting Trichinosis through the consumption of Wild Game than pigs. The disease is caused by eating undercooked meat of animals infected with the larvae of the Trichinella worm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,The signs, symptoms, severity and duration of trichinellosis vary. Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue, fever, and abdominal discomfort are often the first symptoms of trichinellosis. Headaches, fevers, chills, cough, swelling of the face and eyes, aching joints and muscle pains, itchy skin, diarrhea, or constipation may follow the first symptoms. If the infection is heavy, patients may experience difficulty coordinating movements, and have heart and breathing problems. In severe cases, death can occur. For mild to moderate infections, most symptoms subside within a few months. Fatigue, weakness, muscle pain, and diarrhea may last for months.”

The Pigs success over the past ten thousand years of domesticated life is due mainly to its remarkable ability to adapt. Pigs are omnivorous and if left to their own whim will eat anything and that is the problem. The Trichinella worm is introduced into the Pig’s body through the pig eating other infected animals. Trichinosis was a consistent problem within our food chain up until the mid 1950s. Unfortunately, for those of us who are concerned about animal welfare and would like to support free-range, pastured animals it was the pork industry’s move towards the industrialized model that significantly lowered infection rates. Moving pigs from outdoors to confined spaces indoors allowed farmers to better control what the pig consumed–grains and more grains. Along with moving pigs into confined spaces the public was educated on the importance of cooking pork properly. Well, kind of! The Government of Canada, to this day, suggests that consumers cook pork to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The USDA had the same recommendation until 2011 when it lowered it to 145 degrees. This is because 160 degrees results in dry, tough, flavourless pork. It wasn’t the pork chops fault. It was us all along. We were overcooking zealots, who let our fear get in the way of proper cooking.  However, for some reason, our concern did not really transfer over to pork products that have been smoked or cured. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Curing (salting), drying, smoking, or microwaving meat alone does not consistently kill infective worms.” And, “homemade jerky and sausage were the cause of many cases of trichinellosis reported to the CDC in recent years.” So, the public is still confused and how we treat pork products can be rather contradictory in manner.

On top of this, the whole situation leaves us in a bit of a conundrum. Although all animals should be respected and valued, in terms of our domesticated animals pigs are particularly interesting creatures. In Mark Essig’s Lesser Beasts: A Snout to Tail History of the Humble Pig, the author tracks the historical story of the pig and it’s importance and influence on human civilization. He discusses the pigs innate ability to thrive in different locales, whether it be in forests, farms, or city streets. In Europe where pigs ate acorns in the forests and grain on the farms, pigs and their meat were unquestionably a part of society’s dietary routines. However, as we moved more east and pigs were found in city streets surviving off of food scraps, rats, dead things, and other unpleasantries pork was for the poor only as the rich deemed it unclean and unsightly. For the colonialists, pigs were a dependable source of food as they reproduced and adapted quickly to new lands. Spreading diseases to the native peoples while providing food for the newcomers. Pigs are one of the only hoofed animals that make a nest for their young. They wallow in the mud to moderate their temperature and prevent sunburn. They make sure to urinate and defecate away from their bedding. Their sense of smell is 2000 times better than ours, and their snout is not just a nose, but doubles as a fifth limb. The pig’s snout is similar to an Elephant’s trunk in its dexterity. Click here to listen to a CBC interview with Essig.

Considering the pig’s natural abilities it is deeply unfortunate that the majority of pigs in existence today exist in crowded pens on cement floors in enclosed buildings. Unable to live as pigs naturally live, they are there for our convenience, our consumption, and our health. It is all to very easy to condemn the industrialized farming model, which I have done on many occasions, however, it would be ignorant of us to not imagine that perhaps there were very good reasons for the creation of the industrialized model in the first place. Reasons that go beyond the all mighty dollar. According to Peter Davies in his article Intensive Swine Production and Pork Safety there is an “80-fold greater risk (per pig produced) of trichina infections resulting from eating niche market versus commercial pork products in [the United States]” Of course although the industrialized model solved this problem it also created many more that were unseen decades before. Yes, it is a conundrum. And maybe because the reality is unsatisfying is the reason for our mixed feelings towards pigs and their meat. 

Anecdotes: Our Periods and the Menstrual Cup

About a year ago I came across a Canadian charitable organization called–Femme International. An NGO working in Kenya and Tanzania committed to advancing the rights of women and girls through targeted programs that focus on menstruation, sexual health, and feminine hygiene. Through education and the creation of a “Femme Kit” young women and girls are given the means to manage their periods safely and hygienically, central to the success of their “Femme Kit” is the menstrual cup.

For many women and girls who live in the lowest economic bracket “having your period” is more than a nuisance. It can create economic strain, and in the most serious of situations prevent an individual from consistently participating in the regular routines of societal life. In Kenya, the average cost of a package of sanitary pads is $1 CAN. Pretty reasonable, right? Well, when you consider the average daily income of an unskilled labourer in Kenya is $1.50 CAN, this means that women must often choose between properly managing their periods or food and shelter. Often, women resort to other means: leaves, newspapers, rags, etc. which either do not work or lead to infections and discomfort. Due to the fact that some young women are unable to access appropriate menstrual products, girls in Kenya miss an average of 4.9 days of school a month–a direct result of their period.

The menstrual cup or known by it’s various brand names:The Diva Cup, The MeLuna Cup, or the MoonCup is a medical grade silicone cup that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid. They are anti-microbial, do not contain any harmful bleeches or chemicals, unlike the majority of pads and tampons, and there is no threat to Toxic Shock Syndrome. Depending on your flow you may keep the silicone cup inserted for up to 12 hours, and, lastly, if maintained properly one silicone cup’s life cycle could last up to ten years. This means that a young women in Kenya can attend an eight hour school day or go to work without worrying about having to find clean toilets.

It means that all women, can save a tremendous amount of money over the long term by switching from disposable products to non-disposable products. It means that every woman can have a positive impact on the environment by completely erasing the garbage created by disposable pads and tampons. However, although the positive impact may be obvious for those in developing countries, who must deal with alternatives that are too expensive and a public infrastructure that is inadequate for their needs, to the average Westerner the change to something better is slow to come. In the United States, an estimated 12 billion pads and 7 billion tampons are thrown out annually. On average, women throw out 300 pounds of feminine hygiene related products in their lifetime. So, why the hesitation? If the option is out there, why aren’t we choosing it?

I am going to be abrupt about this–My periods suck! I won’t be coy. For two days out of the five every month I kick back tylenol on the regular to relieve a pain that is intense and unforgiving. The pressure, the bloating, my vagina feels like it is on fire. The pain makes it impossible for me to hide my cycle, so I don’t. I have never missed work, but every time I stroll in and a co-worker asks, “How are you doing?” I tell them. “I am ill. So, if I grimace in pain or lean against a table know why and if you can have some sympathy than that is appreciated.” I suppose because the pain can be great that it has forced me to re-negotiate my relationship with my body. If you can barely feel it and it’s simply an annoyance then perhaps one can just shoo shoo it away. Shoo shoo the negativity, the grossness, and the shame.

That’s how I was taught–to give it no mind. When I think about my menstrual cycle or menstrual cycles in general what comes to the foreground are little anecdotes that span my decades. The majority of these anecdotes are saddled with a deep sense of embarrassment, so deep that at the age of thirty-one the act of remembering forces my body to shudder. This shame was nurtured not by my father, husband, or brothers, but by some of the women in my life, my friends. It has made me wonder, as women, about our collective relationship to our bodies and its processes.

One of these anecdotes occurred in 2007. I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland and sharing one room and one bathroom with two other girls–one I had known for a few weeks and the other for ten years. If I can remember correctly the issue at hand for my two roommates was that in Edinburgh they could not find tampons with plastic applicators, only paper. I piped up, always in my somewhat offensive, unfeeling, analytical way, that I did not understand their issue, “I’ve used tampons without an applicator for years.” Their response. “That is disgusting.” Now, the only explanation I could surmise from their remark is that a tampon sans an applicator means that your fingers are up close and personal with one’s body, an applicator provides some distance.

One will not find distance with a menstrual cup or cloth pantyliners and pads, that is for sure, and perhaps this is where the crux of the problem lies. Our shame which has been nourished by moments of being scorned, ridiculed, and embarrassed has made using products that can be easily hidden and easily thrown away a more personal, comfortable choice. I love the fact that my menstrual cycle no longer creates waste. I love that my menstrual cup can show me how much I actually bleed. I love that, other than the pain, some days and nights, because of my menstrual cup I sometimes forget I am even on my period. I love that my cloth panty-liners feel like a pillow for my vagina. Yet, to get to the point where I could enjoy these benefits I had to overcome the alienation I felt with my own body. Periods shouldn’t be gross. They can be painful, annoying, ill-timed, and on the other hand cleansing and a good excuse to enjoy a binge day of great TV. If we could all gain the courage to address our feelings surrounding our periods, I have a sneaking suspicion that, just maybe, ourselves and our environment will be better off.     

 

The best Information that I can find on the menstrual cup is The Diva Cup website.

Little Tidbits from my experience:

(1) Do not give up on it too quickly. The first time I used a menstrual cup, the experience was horrible. It wouldn’t work at all! It took a few times to be able to be comfortable enough to insert it properly. With a little patience you will be able to master it pretty quickly.

(2) I have leaked! And, this is because I am a heavy bleeder. I can fill up a menstrual cup in a few hours. However, from what I learnt I am a rarity, and this is why I use cloth panty-liners. For most women, this shouldn’t be an issue.