Bodyguard of Lies

by Tom Garrett

It is not only war that is, in Churchill’s words, “accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.” We live in a time when lies, perhaps more than ever before, are day-to-day tools of governments and of corporations. The public window to industrial pig production, cast briefly open by the dawn of (H1N1) influenza, is already closing. We shall never know if Granjas Carroll de Mexicothe city of a million imprisoned pigs and huge, reeking lakes of feces on the windswept plateau east of Mexico City—is, as UK Mail Correspondent Sharon Churcher suggested, “the fetid crucible of swine flu.” Nearby villagers, oppressed by stench and dense clouds of flies, suffering from respiratory, eye and skin infections, as well as chronic headaches and dysentery from polluted drinking water, were convinced that the influenza that struck them from February through early April came, once again, from the hated company. But the World Health Organization made no effort to find out. Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork production company, issued “every assurance” that its pigs and workers alike were healthy (never mind that Ms. Churcher had vomited from the smell of rotting carcasses), and that its environmental record, as always, is exemplary. Mexican officials stumbled to concur.

But on May 6, even as Smithfield pronounced itself blameless, a joint New York Times and International Herald Tribune story entitled A US Hog Giant Transforms Eastern Europe gave vivid reminder to those of us who were on the scene of exactly how much credence can be attached to Smithfield assurances (see 2007 Fall Quarterly article Of Pigs, History and Impunity: Smithfield in Romania). In Romania during the summer of 2007, Smithfield deliberately covered up an outbreak of classical swine fever—an entirely different and vastly more lethal virus—for weeks until huge piles of rotting pigs, only a kilometer from the town of Cenei, attracted the press. It was then revealed that not only two of the three infected Smithfield farms were operating illegally, but rather a total of 16, 11 of which lacked permits entirely.

The story by International Herald Tribune reporter Doreen Carvajal recounts how both the interventions of US ambassador Nicholas Taubman and Smithfield’s intimate relationship with Romanian president Triian Basescu and his political cronies shielded the company from prosecution, even serious recrimination. A scathing Veterinary Authority report on the outbreak seems to have been permanently suppressed. The company, far from apologizing, demanded 11.2 million Euros in compensation for the loss of its pigs. According to EU statistics, Smithfield and the European Commission have succeeded in a shockingly brief time in reducing the number of pig farmers in Romania from 477,030 in 2003 to 52,100 in 2008! The EU and the Romanian government alike have lavished Smithfield with subsidies—18 million Euros alone, according to Ms. Carvajal, for “improving the leanness of hogs.” Smithfield has also received “derogations” (exemptions) from many EU environmental regulations until 2012, virtually guaranteeing aquifer contamination in southwest Romania, where its hog factories are located and the water table averages only 20 feet below the surface.

Having found a place where (as was once the case the US) it can get away with virtually anything, the company is voraciously buying up land in the southwestern Romanian counties of Timis and Arad, promising to open 13 new farms. On May 22, France Television 24 showed Romanian women weeping and praying in church for deliverance from the blight Smithfield has brought to their lives.

To avoid defeat, the philosopher Seneca once admonished, “Know thine enemy.” In the mid-1980’s, there were still 670,000 US pig farmers. Today, barely 70,000 remain, many of these corporate contractors. By what formula was this accomplished? How did Smithfield and other industrial interests force over half of Poland’s peasant farmers, who persisted through two wars and 30 years of communism, out of pig farming and drive pig numbers from 20 million in 2000 to 14 million today? How did Smithfield, by itself and in an even briefer time, virtually wipe out traditional pig farming, with roots that are hundreds of years old, and drive a stake in the heart of peasant Romania?

Let us begin by clarifying how this was not done. Industrial dominance did not come about (a lie repeated ad nauseam is still a lie) because it is “more efficient.” Even on a direct cost per unit of production basis, industrial pork production is not more efficient than traditional farming. If the environmental, socio-economic, public health and other quantifiable costs—not to even mention the terrible abuse of animals and degradation of rural life—are taken into account, it is vastly less so.

Corporations could not and did not take over through competition on the “free market.” A free market is anathema to “Big Ag;” it requires a rigged market not only to take control, but to survive. A perfect example of this was seen in Poland after Smithfield’s acquisition of the Communist era Animex chain of slaughterhouses. In 2000, CEO Joe Luter admitted to the Washington Post that his Polish gambit would fail unless his free market competitors, “4,500 outlaw, backyard slaughterhouses” in his words, were shut down. A Warsaw Business Journal article complained, “Small factories are more competitive because they have lower operating costs...that’s why they’re winning the market.”

Finally, for all of the PR gibberish about “modernization,” the takeover had nothing to do with technical innovation. The “reforms” that were pursued by Smithfield et al in the 1970s and 1980s were not “innovative,” but brutally simple. They were to break the power of the unions and replace unionized workers with immigrants, who were paid one-third as much; increase the speed of the line upon which animals are hung and slaughtered by up to 300 percent, regardless of the ensuing carnage; ignore, bypass, vitiate, and in every possible way stall and avoid compliance with laws pertaining to humane slaughter, meat inspection, the environment, pure food and drugs, occupational safety and health, antitrust, immigration, or any other laws or regulations that cost money or inhibit operations.

Since these tactics cannot work if such laws, which are now on the books in most countries, are enforced as written, the sine qua non of corporate animal production is political control. The patron saint of multinational agribusiness is surely banana merchant and United Fruit Company President Sam Zemuray, who in 1902 likened buying Honduran politicians to buying mules. Government collusion, both in the US and Central Europe has gone far beyond simply looking away while laws were violated. The corporate takeover of American agriculture could not have occurred absent of massive subsidies, both direct and indirect. The infamous “contract system” that has reduced broiler and hog producers to the status of serfs would have been impossible without federal loans and loan guarantees (see the 2006 Fall AWI Quarterly article Contract Farming: The New Serfdom). Corporate destruction of highly functional systems of independent farms came about through deliberate government interventions, some masked, some (as in Central Europe) openly brutal.

The fundamental strategy for subjugating independent farmers is to establish a monopsony—a market form in which only one buyer faces many sellers—to control and repress the price of live animals or crops in the field. To do this, it is necessary to gain control of processing. Once this is done, processors—if government allows them to—can simply cut off the market to farmers who will not accept their terms or become their contractors. In the US, it required decades, beginning with broilers in the 1940s, for the largest and most ruthless corporations to absorb smaller competitors or drive them out of business. In the UK and Central Europe, this happened much more rapidly. US regulatory agencies looked the other way while corporations did their own dirty work. In Central Europe, just as Joe Luter demanded, government did it for them.

Consolidation did not come about in Poland, Romania or the UK in spite of EU accession, but because of it. Acceding countries have wide latitude to interpret European Commission directives. Some, such as France, the Irish Republic and several German states, interpreted slaughterhouse directives so as to allow local processors access to domestic markets. But when the UK was obliged to license “EC Export Standard” abattoirs, corrupt officials of the late Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) seized the opportunity to force small and medium slaughterhouses out of business. By 2003, all but 123 of 1,300 small slaughterhouses were closed. Their disappearance led, in turn, to the closure of thousands of small stores and butcher shops and the loss of thousands of small livestock farms, besides a general withering of rural Britain. Food borne illness soared, animals suffered for many consecutive hours in queued trucks, awaiting admission to large industrial abattoirs. Epizootics, BSE, classical swine fever, bovine tuberculosis, and finally foot and mouth disease all broke out.

In 2001, the Solidarity Action government of Poland (after Prime Minister Buzek had spent half a day closeted with Luter) also clothed punitive measures against small and medium slaughterhouses in the fraudulent claim that EU directives left them no choice. The Animal Welfare Institute held up “harmonizing” legislation for EU accession for eight months in the Polish Sejm and came within a few votes of winning. In the end, however, the power of bribery prevailed, and the thousands of local operations that enabled small scale livestock farming were dismantled. In early 2004, at a meeting in the town of Czaplinek, the head of the local Agricultural Chamber stood up with tears in his eyes. “When you told us three years ago what would happen,” he said, “I couldn’t believe our government would sell us out. But it is even worse than you predicted. This gmina [municipality] had a hundred pig farmers. Not one remains.”

What happened in Poland and the UK was repeated in Romania, with the wholesale closure of small slaughterhouse once again depicted as a sad but necessary process imposed by the EU Smithfield reinforced the war against peasants by flooding Romania—where pig ranchers had long been protected by tariffs—with cheap pork from Poland and the US. The controlling monopsony in Romania, which took years of bitter infighting to establish in the US, was handed to Luter virtually on a platter.

The clearest lesson from a decade of struggle is that animal factories like Granjas Carroll or those in North Carolina, the American Midwest, western Pomerania, or Timis county cannot flourish in the absence of political corruption. They are not viable in Sweden, because the mass abuse of animals is not allowed. They cannot take root in countries where water and air pollution are honestly regulated or the health and rights of citizens is safeguarded and respected. They cannot thrive where economic fair play is enforced and must pay their own way. The very presence tells us that something is wrong with the government, if not the very society, that tolerates them.

Returning to whence we began, where does this leave Mexico? Smithfield and its partners already have two huge hog factory complexes there. Consumption, as in Romania, exceeds demand, and the political climate seems “right” for expansion. Do Mexico’s peasant unions grasp the degree of menace? Can they and will they defend themselves?

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