Behind the wall: Smithfield and the Victory of Illusion

Happy pigs on pasture appear on the infamous Farmer John's mural, but the average productive life of a sow imprisoned in a gestation crate rarely exceeds two years. Many still-young sows chosen for culling are too crippled to even walk out of confinement to their deaths.Farmer John's is a huge, odiferous slaughterhouse in Vernon, Calif. that is owned by Hormel Foods and supplies much of the pork consumed in the Los Angeles basin. Incongruously, however, the brick wall surrounding the plant is caparisoned with one of the world's largest murals depicting idyllic farms and pigs roaming happily in green pastures. The murals, painted over the course of 11 years by Hollywood set designer Les Grimes, are locally famous and inspire feature articles contrasting the surroundings from which the pigs have presumably been dragooned with the grim fate that awaits them.

When Grimes was creating this curious legacy between 1957 and 1968, most pigs were indeed raised on family farms; some, at least, on pasture. But times have changed; America's family farmers are in extremis; of over 2 million hog farmers in the 1950s, only about 80,000 remain. Today, the only real contrast between the industrial hell from which the pigs have been taken and the hell awaiting them as they are driven off the trucks or deposited dead and dying into rows of overflowing dumpsters (death loss on trucks is enormous in the summer) is the latter's brevity. Farmer John's largest source of pigs is a place as far from the bucolic as one can imagine, a phalanx of gigantic steel sheds rising eerily in the almost lunar landscape of southwestern Utah's high desert called Circle Four.

Circle Four was initially a partnership set up with grandiose expectations by four North Carolina hog barons as the western terminus of their continental conquest. The partnership ended in 1998 with the cannibalization of two partners by the biggest one. Circle Four is now owned by Smithfield Foods. Smithfield's rise and pastoral America's fall, the eclipse of the wall's bright images on real farms, are very much parts of the same phenomenon.

Two decades ago, there were still 670,000 family hog farms, and Smithfield was a small Virginia company—notorious for polluting the Pagan River, but barely noticed amid the jostling of agribusiness behemoths. In 20 years, however, it has metamorphosed from regional piranha to international shark, operating in seven countries and utterly dominating the American hog industry. At least one of three pigs butchered in America is killed in Smithfield slaughterhouses; with its latest acquisitions it will own a fifth of those raised. Smithfield owns 95 percent of the pigs in Virginia. In North Carolina, where there were 27,000 independent hog farmers in the mid-1980s, only a few hundred remain. In Missouri, where there were 22,000, fewer than 2,000 remain.

Smithfield's first quantum leap to dominance came in 1992, when it completed the world's largest slaughterhouse in Bladen County, N.C., bringing on a porcine explosion in that state—from 2.4 million to 10 million animals—and the ecological devastation of its coastal plain. This was followed, as North Carolina became saturated, by a surge of hog factories across the Midwest and by Smithfield's own implacable expansion, crushing labor unions, taking over scores of competing companies. An even more profound transformation occurred in 1998, when Smithfield and another industry giant, Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), took advantage of a meat workers' strike in Canada to shut down three large slaughterhouses, ostensibly for repairs. The processing bottleneck that resulted was so severe that live hog prices crashed to a quarter of the cost of production, plunging hog raisers, large and small, into acute crisis. Within months, tens of thousands of small farmers had been forced from business, and Smithfield had absorbed its erstwhile partners, Murphy Farms and Carroll's Foods, the world's largest and second largest hog production companies, to own 13 million hogs. At that point, Smithfield became 60 percent vertically integrated and insulated from the perturbations of the market.

Since 1999, Smithfield has invaded central Europe, first Poland, then Romania, flouting laws and regulations, stimulating political corruption, polluting, bringing mass abuse of animals, oppressing citizens, disrupting the agricultural economy, and again, as in America, leaving illness and ruin in its train.1

On Jan. 25, 2007, winning in the hard world of death, stench and political control that fills its coffers, but losing in the world of public perceptions, Smithfield made a move that rivals some of its earlier gambits. The company announced, with much fanfare, that it intends to phase out gestation crates in its own installation—such as Circle Four—in 10 years, and to oblige its contractors (who raise most Smithfield pigs) to do the same in 20 years. The gambit worked. The move was widely praised; some opponents not only trumpeted "victory," but also claimed it for themselves, arguing that they had forced the company's hand with anti-gestation crate referendums in Florida and Arizona. Word that Maple Leaf, Canada's largest hog butcher, was following Smithfield's lead brought further triumph.

A victory, but whose? Has Smithfield, long the industry leader in rapacity, now become its leader in animal welfare? Is Maple Leaf, having followed Smithfield's lead before by crushing trade unions, chopping wages, speeding the killing line and adopting vertical integration, similarly "changing its spots?" The Smithfield announcement was a public relations coup that served an economic purpose, to placate its largest purchasers, such as McDonald's, which has become restive over the cruelty issue. It was a mission accomplished at little "upfront" cost. Most retrofitting will—inevitably—be deferred as long as possible, up to two decades in the case of contractors and often past the functioning life of the installations themselves. Few (if any) pigs now living will benefit. Generations of Smithfield sows will live their short lives in the same wretched cages in which they are imprisoned today.

Eliminating gestation crates relieves the worst single aspect of industrial hog raising, but it does not change its overall cruelty and ugliness: crowding, filth, darkness, noise, noxious gasses, bare concrete floors. It is still a hell; every installation is still surrounded by a loathsome garland of dumpsters full of dead pigs. Animals live and die without smelling the earth or seeing the sky or carrying out motor patterns nature has intended for them.

It does nothing to protect the environment. All the disastrous effects of the liquefied manure system—its assault of pig respiratory systems, surface water pollution, air pollution, contamination of aquifers and the spread of resistant pathogens—remain in effect.

It does not relieve the impacts on humans, both those who live near liquefied manure operations and those who work there. Impacts range beyond stench and clouds of flies to eye and skin infections, respiratory infections and dysentery to irreversible pulmonary and brain damage. Lagoons and sprayfields are major emitters of hydrogen sulfide. There is mounting evidence of widespread, often severe or lethal neurological damage from this gas. Recent out-of-court settlements by industry are tacit admissions of what may be the tip of a medical iceberg.2

It does nothing to relieve the corrupt marriage between industrial agribusiness and American officials and politicians. By lessening the opprobrium attached to industrial operations, it may have worsened it.

Finally, foreclosing the use of gestation crates does not inhibit the continuing remorseless expansion of industrial animal raising. Nothing illustrates this fact better than the recent situation in Arizona, where Proposition 204 to ban gestation crates passed by a substantial margin. Nonetheless, beleaguered citizens are struggling against a major hog factory expansion in the state's southwest corner, involving at least 50,000 feeder pigs. The purported owner, Jerry Cullison, is widely regarded as a front for Hormel, the company that owns Farmer John's. In fact, the investor of record calls itself PFFJ, "Pigs for Farmer John's." And we are, thus, where we began: sinister sheds in the desert, a vast and multivorous city, bright images of a bygone America girdling its house of death.

1 Smithfield's inglorious tradition of buying politicians and officials has convulsed Polish and Romanian politics, leading to the distortionand non-enforcement of health and environmental laws. In Poland, towns near Smithfield-owned hog factories (usually sited in former state farms) are full of sick children and people with respiratory, skin and eye infections. Dysentary is at third world levels. Citizens have to endure stench, clouds of flies, bullying by company guards. In Romania, which had rigorously enforced health and sanitation regulations, veterinarians are under pressure to let Smithfield do anything it pleases. There has even been an attempt to dismantle regulations altogether. In both countries, and earlier in the United States, small farmers are confronted by crashing hog prices caused by corporate overproduction and manipulation of the market.

2 University of Southern California professor Dr. Kaye Kilburn, one of the world's leading experts on chemical poisoning, has examined 60 persons (mostly citizens living "downwind") with neurological damage from hydrogen sulfide. This chemical is produced by liquefied manure. He believes anyone—especially children—subjected to chronic exposure will suffer brain damage eventually.