« Return to this article

Know the West

The meat of the matter


Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms
Nicolette Hahn Niman
278 pages,
hardcover: $23.99.
HarperCollins, 2009.

When lawyer Nicolette Hahn was first assigned to sue gigantic polluting hog farms, she didn't care for the idea. It sounded like an "immersion in poop," she writes in her first book, Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms. And that's exactly what it turned out to be. In one day, certain hog farms generate more pig manure than New York City produces human waste, the lawyer learned. The fumes are so great that confined hogs sometimes die of asphyxiation, and the lagoons where the waste is funneled often leak, contaminating groundwater.

Once the self-described "city girl" took charge of the hog-farm campaign for the nonprofit Waterkeeper, she quickly developed a zeal for fighting factory farming. Touring industrial animal operations, talking with environmentalists and visiting old-fashioned family farms, she came to despise the "mono-genetic identically formed mass-produced widgets" that most Americans call meat. Righteous Porkchop describes her journey from ingenue to activist. The book is neither as objective nor as thoroughly reported as some other recent factory-farming exposes, such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. But it is both passionate and personal.

Interpersed with graphic depictions of animal slaughter, there's even a love story. In one breath, the author describes how hens past their egg-laying prime are thrown alive into rotating choppers. In another, she gives a starry-eyed description of Bill Niman, a California cattle rancher who runs a humane beef operation. Before the book's end, he has become her husband and she has become Nicolette Hahn Niman -- and a cattle rancher.

And here the author's emotional approach begins to chafe. While her appraisal of other industrial farming operations is damning, she largely gives cattle ranching a pass. She says that cattle are "essential to maintaining grasslands," but gives scant attention to the soil erosion and desertification intensive grazing can cause. She claims that cattle feed can be grown with fewer environmental impacts than fruits and vegetables, ignoring the other environmental benefits of eating low on the food chain.    

Niman's refusal to consider the downsides of cattle ranching comes off as self-serving. This is a shame, because the underlying message of the book remains a good one: It is immoral to ignore the origins of our meat. As conscientious consumers, she says, we have a responsibility to find a good food source and "vote with our forks."