Of Pigs, History and Impunity: Smithfield in Romania

By Tom Garrett

Of Pigs, History and Impunity: Smithfield in Romania, by Tom GarrettA train ride from the southwestern city of Timisoara appears to confirm all that has been written in the western press about Romanian agriculture. One can pass for long stretches across one of Europe's famously fertile regions, the Hungarian plateau, wreathed in mist in the first light of morning, without seeing a farmstead. All were razed during the communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu to make way for giant state farms. This region, along with the country's other flatlands, the Wallacian plateau and the Danube valley in the south and east, as well as much of Moldavia in the north, was remorselessly collectivized. Today, many fields, returned to owners without the capital to resume farming, are abandoned and overgrown. Flocks of sheep, watched over by shepherds, crop the weeds.

Yet in the hills and mountains making up the central part of the country, one steps back in time to a peasant society unaltered in 60 years. Outside the northern city of Cluj are innumerable narrow valleys clogged with tiny haystacks. There are women in kerchiefs bending over in the fields, men cutting hay with scythes, beautiful teams of horses. The villages are neat and solidly built, but without electricity and running water. Donkey carts make their way from house to house delivering water; every home is backed by an orchard and garden, every yard seems occupied by chickens and pigs. There are 4.2 million peasant properties in Romania. While they average only 2.2 hectares, most of the country's agricultural production, including pigs, derives from them.

Unfortunately, both peasant Romania, which survived Communism, and commercial farming, still painfully restoring itself, face an enemy that aspires, in effect, to resume where Ceausescu left off. In 2004, Smithfield Foods, already entrenched in Poland, invaded Romania as well. Its initial target was Contim, a huge complex of Ceausescu-era hog factories—36 large farms, six feedmills, and the country's biggest slaughterhouse—which it acquired for only 33 million dollars through the socialist government then in power.

When biology student Dana Spinu and I visited Timisoara a few weeks before the Smithfield takeover, we found officials and academics naively unprepared for what awaited them. We were invited to Paderini, one of six Contim farms being operated by a Romanian firm, in its last days of independence before being swallowed up. In contrast to US and Polish hog factories, the operation was scrupulously clean. The effluent was pumped to sewage ponds a kilometer away; the feeder pigs had four times more room than in the United States, twice that required under EU regulations. Piglets were weaned at 36 days and took six months to reach market weight. My description of Smithfield practices—piglets weaned at 11 days and brought to market weight at 120 days, feed doped with growth enhancers and antibiotics, dumpsters overflowing with dead animals—was greeted with incredulity by company veterinarians. "Impossible! Illegal! It can't happen here!"

Smithfield's first move upon its arrival was to fire former managers, post guards at hog factory gates, and order employees to say nothing about their work. Evidence of high level corruption was not long in coming. Local officials were ordered to keep "hands off" the company; academic critics were disciplined. Smithfield's relationship with the neo-liberals who came to power in 2005 was even more intimate. Free of interference, even exempted from EU regulations until 2012, Smithfield moved rapidly to consolidate its position, reactivating the Contim farms, and buying refrigeration and transportation companies. While the government shut down small slaughterhouses (ostensibly because of the EU), leaving small farmers with no place to market pigs, Smithfield flooded the country with pork imported from Poland and the United States.

In July 2007, however, Smithfield encountered an opponent that it could not bribe. At Cenei, west of Timisoara, 3,500 Smithfield pigs died suddenly. The company blamed it on a heat wave, but nauseating piles of carcasses attracted the press, and the county veterinary inspectorate was forced to do its job. On Aug. 3, it discovered classical swine fever, a viral disease long endemic in Romania, among Cenei's 20,000 pigs. At this point, the "hands off Smithfield" policy came to an abrupt end. The county disease control center halted all movement of Smithfield hogs, freezing its operations; the National Veterinary and Food Safety Authority began emergency inspections of the entire Contim system. Within a few days, two more infected farms with 30,000 pigs were discovered at Igris, on the Hungarian border.

At the same time, it was learned that 11 Smithfield farms had not even applied for sanitary-veterinary authorization and were operating in blatant contempt of Romanian law. Agency head Radu Roatus excoriated local officials and announced that the unregistered farms would be shut down. Agriculture Minister Decebal Traian Remes confirmed that all exposed pigs would be killed and incinerated, and he suggested that the company "probably" would not be compensated for them. Muzzles removed, lesser officials blamed the Americans. "Our doctors have not had access to American farms to perform routine inspections," said Timis county veterinarian Csaba Doraczi. "Every time they tried they were pushed away by the guards." It even came to light that Smithfield workers are paid so little, about $230 US a month, that the company suffered from a labor shortage.

On our visit to Cenei, we heard harrowing tales; huge piles of rotting pigs left unburied for weeks at the farm a kilometer away, then five intolerable days as 20,000 pigs were shot and burned in the open. At Igris, the government vaporized 30,000 very young pigs, some just weaned, in an electric incinerator brought from the United Kingdom. Both villages were visited by EU observers and privately owned pigs within a 10-kilometer radius were hastily vaccinated.

A "serious investigation" of Timis county authorities is said to be underway. But the impunity with which Smithfield was allowed to operate derives from collusion at the highest levels of government, far above the hapless officials who are likely to take the blame. Nor does one have to look far to find the long arm of the US government. A delegation of American lawmakers (reportedly Senators) came to Bucharest to lobby for Smithfield, and Romanian Members of Parliament were in the United States at Smithfield's expense—the American ambassador has been persistently involved. Already, there is evidence of an attempt to smother the issue and remove it from public view.

Whether the arrival of classical swine fever, exposing Smithfield as the rogue company it always has been, can halt its takeover remains to be seen. But the trajectory of events, if it does not, is perfectly clear. When Walter Goldschmidt, dean of rural sociology, travelled in Romania during the 1980s, through fields of sunflowers stretching unbroken as far as the eye could see, he said he had a sense of déjà vu. He had seen it all before when he studied America's first corporate takeover of agriculture as a young man in the Central Valley of California. It was perfectly clear to Goldschmidt that the collectivization and corporatization of agriculture are two sides of the same coin. Where rural Romania is going, if the virus does not save it, is back to Nicolai Ceausescu's vision of complete control, materializing re-clothed, but in an even more tyrannical and malignant form.