After shocking revelations of unsanitary practices at one of its plants, the world's largest pork producer has sent in a team of experts to save its image and its investments. US-owned Smithfield Foods Inc. shut down Constar, its major Polish meatpacking plant, for 11 days because the national media recently revealed its system of scraping mold off of expired sausages and sending them back to its retailers.
In April, the major Polish daily newspaper and the biggest private television channel caught workers at the Constar plant on hidden cameras, debating whether expired products sent back by stores should be thrown out or cleaned up and sent out again.
"The director [of Constar] has been suspended from performing his duties... and production has been halted until the matter is cleared up," said Lidia Zalewska, a spokesperson for Animex, Smithfield's Polish unit and the owner of Constar. In addition to an investigation by government food safety inspectors, the company launched an internal audit.
Smithfield said it is hiring a third party, Poland's former top veterinarian, to oversee an investigation of the incident and the inspection of the Constar plant. The European Commission is awaiting the results of the Polish investigation before deciding whether to take any action.
This scandal proves large, high-tech slaughterhouses do not make a safer food supply. According to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the closure of small slaughterhouses in the United States and in England coincided with an increase of meat-borne diseases by 300 percent and 500 percent respectively. This is because big, centralized slaughterhouses force pork production onto factory farms where disease is rampant, and because long transport distances stress the animals and spread disease. Furthermore, technologies that increase line speed inside the slaughterhouse multiply worker errors and make proper inspections impossible.
Constar was built in the 1970s by the US plant architectural firm Epstein Engineering, and before it was taken over by both Animex and Smithfield—and then Smithfield alone in 1999—the plant had already introduced a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) programme in 1996.
In the United States, the health situation of the big slaughterhouses was immeasurably worsened in 1998, when the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), yielding to industry wishes, introduced a system of HACCP that allows companies to devise their own methods of guaranteeing food safety through self-regulation, said the Animal Welfare Institute's Tom Garrett.
The practical effect of HACCP has been to remove the previously already scarce number of inspectors from the line. The same problem also appeared recently at Constar; the inspectors never visited the part of plant where workers scraped mold from sausages.
The Virginia-based Smithfield, which processes 20 million hogs annually, has unfortunately been bent on expansion since 1999, when it acquired Animex and all its brands, including the famous Krakus. Last year, it acquired Morliny, giving the company Poland's two most-recognized meat brands. It also boasts two subsidiaries in Romania. However, Smithfield Foods' reputation in the region is now under heavy fire, as the Constar scandal is just the latest in a series to rock the corporation's activities in Poland.
"We are making very much of an effort to improve our communication with local communities, to improve our communication with the citizens of Poland in a manner that we hope will result in them recognizing that we are a good company who is out for the good of Poland and not some sort of a threat to them," said Dennis H. Treacy, Smithfield's vice president for environmental, community and government affairs to a Polish newspaper.
However, thanks to Kennedy's visit to Poland in 2003, Polish public opinion already has very little doubt about what to expect from Smithfield—and obviously one of the major issues of this year's Parliamentary elections campaign in the Polish Countryside will be animal welfare and the health and environmental problems caused by Smithfield's operations in the heart of Europe.