White Meat’s Dark Side

Bacon lovers may reconsider their morning strip after reading Jeff Tietz’s chilling Rolling Stone article about Smithfield Foods, the nation’s top pork producer. This exposé makes it hard to even think about eating a pork chop.

Smithfield Foods raised 27 million hogs last year—under horrifying conditions.

They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs—anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits.

But living conditions are the least of the problems. The real problem is the amount of waste these pigs produce—a single Smithfield subsidiary generates more fecal matter than all of Manhattan. To dispose of this in the same manner as human waste would cause the company to lose money, so instead it is pumped into open holding ponds where it seeps into the groundwater and nearby rivers or is sprayed on fields. People living nearby who breathe this spray develop bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage; those who accidentally fall into the lagoons die.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure.

Lagoon overflow is not uncommon. In four years, 2 million gallons of pig waste has spilled into the Cape Fear River alone, killing plant life and fish. Hurricanes are a problem, since they wash millions of gallons of untreated waste into rivers and out to sea, leaving a trail of dead fish and dead pigs behind. “Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers…. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind,” reports Tietz.

The man behind the rise of Smithfield Foods is one Joseph Luter III, who last year took home a salary of over $10 million. He’s currently been nominated as a contender for the Grinch of the Year Award, by the organization Jobs with Justice, as the national figure doing the most to harm working families. When Luter is asked about the thousands of Smithfield violations of the Clean Water Act, he points out the much larger number of violations possible. Apparently he thinks his company isn’t doing too badly.

Now Luter is planning to expand the Smithfield operation in Eastern Europe, bringing toxic pig shit to Romania. Smithfield operations in Poland, where lagoon failure resulted in skin rashes and eye infections for local residents, has recently been deemed damaging to the ecosystem by a Helsinki Commission report.

Food bloggers have gotten worked up by this article as well. Catherine at Food Musings says, “It’s foul beyond all imagining,” and asks what people can do if they live in an area that doen’t have non-factory-farmed pork easily available (The Local Harvest website is a good place to start). Chef Chris Consentino, on his blog Offal Good, points out that people can make a difference. “You the consumer can change this problem, don’t buy these meats, be sure you know where your pork comes from.”

So, do you know where your bacon comes from?