My diet doesn’t include much pork—every week or two I will have a sausage and pepper sandwich, and perhaps once a year, eat pork roast on a holiday. But after this week, I will eat pork products no more: no sausage, no ham, no bacon, no pork chops, no salami or prosciutto. That’s because I’ve been jolted by more detailed information on what I’ve long known was a scandal, the corporatized factory-farming of pigs run by huge conglomerates like Smithfield Inc—the largest pork producer in the world. These are the folks that advertise their lovely sliced hams on the tube, evoking the recent past when pigs were raised by countless rural families (I used to see and hear a neighbor in suburban Connecticut slaughter his pig each year, a gory business but local, and known and understood by all as simply a family’s way of getting good clean meat for the year). The reality of today’s pork production, however, is far different and far more alarming.
The numbers alone are staggering: 27 million hogs killed in one year by Smithfield alone, equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations of 32 of America’s largest cities. More astonishing is the quantity of pig excrement produced in these factory farms—because hogs produce three times more shit than a human being. As noted in Jeff Teitz’s, “Boss Hog,” Rolling Stone, December 2006:
The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums.
And what do the hog producers do with all this shit? It’s enough to make you swear off pork, in fact off all meat produced by America’s industrial farm system, forever. Typically, the excrement is stored in ponds euphemistically called “lagoons.” So many chemicals pour into these lagoons via the antibiotics and other “medicines” needed to keep pigs more or less free of the bacteria that thrive in their crowded quarters that the ponds become toxic to anything that falls into them (several fatal cases of workers and even truckers falling into these lagoons have been documented by investigators—see “Boss Hog,” noted above ). The runoff from the ponds is equally toxic to rivers and bays and their fish; at one point, Smithfield, under attack for fouling the waters in North Carolina so badly that it was fined millions by the EPA, decided to engage in what it called “pollution control.” And what was that? Here’s what Teitz observed:
Looking down from a plane, we watch as several of Smithfield’s farmers spray their hog shit straight up into the air as a fine mist: It looks like a public fountain. Lofted and atomized, the shit is blown clear of the company's property. People who breathe the shit-infused air suffer from bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage. In 1995, a woman downwind from a corporate hog farm in Olivia, Minnesota, called a poison control center and described her symptoms. “Ma'am,” the poison-control officer told her, “the only symptoms of hydrogen-sulfide poisoning you're not experiencing are seizures, convulsions and death. Leave the area immediately.”
Never ones to waste anything, Smithfield’s operators then used the shit spray to fertilize nearby hay fields, supplying the feed to both the hogs and other farm animals. A perfect “made-in-America” solution, except for the fact that this nitrate-laden hay made livestock sick. But then, every solution has a down side. A few sick cattle, a few asthmatic humans breathing shit in their air, are nothing compared to the ingeniously productive farm methods of corporate America (Smithfield’s sales for the year ending in April 2010 were over $11 billion, with 48,000 employees).
As to the animals themselves, well they’re only pigs after all. Housing them—the artificially-inseminated females, that is, producing more little piggies for Smithfield—in fiendish devices called “gestation crates,” is no more than they deserve. And what are gestation crates? They’re cramped metal cages “too small to turn around in, devoid of sunlight, straw, air or earth.” The sows, which produce and nurse five to eight litters in their four years of existence, literally go mad from their confinement, biting the metal bars till they bleed, with immune systems completely broken down. When these conditions were publicized, Smithfield in 2007 (and several other hog producers) vowed to eliminate the crates from their facilities. But then, in 2009, Smithfield reneged on its commitment, saying the transition to more humane pens would be too costly. In 2010, yet another investigation, this time by the Humane Society, produced a report, with video, of the same inhumane conditions at Smithfield facilities. The video and excerpts from its report can be seen on http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Smithfield_Foods, but be careful: it will break your heart if it doesn’t nauseate you first.
The latest bit of news about the nation’s hog farming, this time from an operation in Iowa, the state with the highest hog production in the country, asked a new question: “Animal Cruelty: Could a Barbaric Pig-Handling Video Hurt Major Grocery Chains?” Posted on Time.com, and on Yahoo News on June 30, 2011, the new report tells of a “horrific undercover video” shot by the group Mercy For Animals. It showed the brutal treatment of hogs as they are confined (tails docked or “cut off”; pigs casually tossed across pens by workers; sickly ones slammed head-first on the floor to eliminate them) and slaughtered. To record his findings, the investigator got himself hired and worked undercover for several months (several states have now banned such recording of industrial operations by these bleeding hearts). And what the article wonders is, will this cause consumers to boycott pork at the big chain stores specifically supplied by this producer: Kroger’s, Safeway, Costco and Hy-Vee?
One can only hope this is the least that results. As for me, I repeat my vow: refusal to eat any pork product whatever, perhaps any meat product either. Because what has been revealed about pigs is no aberration on America’s vile torture-farms. Rather it is the rule. Efficiency and profit are all that matters. And the worst part is that we are exporting that “efficiency” and “profit-making” and “torture” all over the world. One of the expedients used by Smithfield in the face of all the negative publicity they’ve been getting is to buy up huge facilities in Poland and Rumania to transfer their operations there.
And if those operations succumb to public revulsion as well? Perhaps a special place in hell—with a nice hot suite of offices for those in charge, including visitor facilities for the politicians who enable them—could be fitted out.