One pig is slaughtered every two seconds...
One Smithfield worker described the brutality: %u201CThe line is so fast that there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull, and you have to cut harder.
Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. 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. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.
The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Enormous exhaust fans run twenty-four hours a day. The ventilation systems function like the ventilators of terminal patients: If they break down for any length of time, pigs start dying.
From Smithfield's point of view, the problem with this lifestyle is immunological. Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs' immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides. Without these compounds -- oxytetracycline, draxxin, ceftiofur, tiamulin -- diseases would likely kill them. Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they're slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.
The drugs Smithfield administers to its pigs, of course, exit its hog houses in pig shit. Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.
Smithfield's holding ponds -- the company calls them lagoons -- cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.
Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.
Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing shit to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.
The chairman of Smithfield Foods, Joseph Luter III, is a funny, jowly, canny, barbarous guy who lives in a multimillion-dollar condo on Park Avenue in Manhattan and conveys himself about the planet in a corporate jet and a private yacht. At sixty-seven, he is unrepentant in the face of criticism. He describes himself as a "tough man in a tough business" and his factories as wholly legitimate products of the American free market. He can be sardonic; he likes to mock his critics and rivals.
Studies have shown that lagoons emit hundreds of different volatile gases into the atmosphere, including ammonia, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. A single lagoon releases many millions of bacteria into the air per day, some resistant to human antibiotics. Hog farms in North Carolina also emit some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.
Each of the company's lagoons is surrounded by several fields. Pollution control at Smithfield consists of spraying the pig shit from the lagoons onto the fields to fertilize them. The idea is borrowed from the past: The small hog farmers that Smithfield drove out of business used animal waste to fertilize their crops, which they then fed to the pigs. Smithfield says that this, in essence, is what it does -- its crops absorb every ounce of its pig shit, making the lagoon-sprayfield system a zero-discharge, nonpolluting waste-disposal operation. "If you manage your fields correctly, there should be no runoff, no pollution," says Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president of environmental affairs. "If you're getting runoff, you're doing something wrong."
In fact, Smithfield doesn't grow nearly enough crops to absorb all of its hog weight. The company raises so many pigs in so little space that it actually has to import the majority of their food, which contains large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Those chemicals -- discharged in pig shit and sprayed on fields -- run off into the surrounding ecosystem, causing what Dan Whittle, a former senior policy associate with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, calls a "mass imbalance." At one point, three hog-raising counties in North Carolina were producing more nitrogen, and eighteen were producing more phosphorus, than all the crops in the state could absorb.
Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act -- the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield's annual sales.
A river that receives a lot of waste from an industrial hog farm begins to die quickly. Toxins and microbes can kill plants and animals outright; the waste itself consumes available oxygen and suffocates fish and aquatic animals; and the nutrients in the pig shit produce algal blooms that also deoxygenate the water. The Pagan River runs by Smithfield's original plant and headquarters in Virginia, which served as Joseph Luter's staging ground for his assault on the pork-raising and processing industries. For several decades, before a spate of regulations, the Pagan had no living marsh grass, a tiny and toxic population of fish and shellfish and a half foot of noxious black mud coating its bed. The hulls of boats winched up out of the river bore inch-thick coats of greasy muck. In North Carolina, much of the pig waste from Smithfield's operations makes its way into the Neuse River; in a five-day span in 2003 alone, more than 4 million fish died. Pig-waste runoff has damaged the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, which is almost as big as the Chesapeake Bay and which provides half the nursery grounds used by fish in the eastern Atlantic.
The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.
It's hard to conceive of a fish kill that size. The kill began with turbulence in one small part of the water: fish writhing and dying. Then it spread in patches along the entire length and breadth of the river. In two hours, dead and dying fish were mounded wherever the river's contours slowed the current, and the riverbanks were mostly dead fish. Within a day dead fish completely covered the riverbanks, and between the floating and beached and piled fish the water scintillated out of sight up and down the river with billions of buoyant dead eyes and scales and white bellies -- more fish than the river seemed capable of holding. The smell of rotting fish covered much of the county; the air above the river was chaotic with scavenging birds. There were far more dead fish than the birds could ever eat.
Spills aren't the worst thing that can happen to toxic pig waste lying exposed in fields and lagoons. Hurricanes are worse. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000,000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers. Many of the pig-shit lagoons of eastern North Carolina were several feet underwater. Satellite photographs show a dark brown tide closing over the region's waterways, converging on the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound and feeding itself out to sea in a long, well-defined channel. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind. Tens of thousands of drowned pigs were strewn across the land. Beaches located miles from Smithfield lagoons were slathered in feces. A picture taken at the time shows a shark eating a dead pig three miles off the North Carolina coast.
From a waste-disposal perspective, Hurricane Floyd was the best thing that had ever happened to corporate hog farming in North Carolina. Smithfield currently has tens of thousands of gallons of open-air waste awaiting more Floyds.
In addition to such impressive disasters, corporate hog farming contributes to another form of environmental havoc: Pfiesteria piscicida, a microbe that, in its toxic form, has killed a billion fish and injured dozens of people. Nutrient-rich waste like pig shit creates the ideal environment for Pfiesteria to bloom: The microbe eats fish attracted to algae nourished by the waste. Pfiesteria is invisible and odorless -- you know it by the trail of dead. The microbe degrades a fish's skin, laying bare tissue and blood cells; it then eats its way into the fish's body. After the 1995 spill, millions of fish developed large bleeding sores on their sides and quickly died. Fishermen found that at least one of Pfiesteria's toxins could take flight: Breathing the air above the bloom caused severe respiratory difficulty, headaches, blurry vision and logical impairment. Some fishermen forgot how to get home; laboratory workers exposed to Pfiesteria lost the ability to solve simple math problems and dial phones; they forgot their own names. It could take weeks or months for the brain and lungs to recover.
Smithfield is no longer able to disfigure watersheds quite so obviously as in the past; it can no longer expand and flatten small pig farms quite so easily. Several state legislatures have passed laws prohibiting or limiting the ownership of small farms by pork processors. In some places, new slaughterhouses are required to meet expensive waste-disposal requirements; many are forbidden from using the waste-lagoon system. North Carolina, where pigs now outnumber people, has passed a moratorium on new hog operations and ordered Smithfield to fund research into alternative waste-disposal technologies. South Carolina, having taken a good look at its neighbor's coastal plain, has pronounced the company unwelcome in the state. The federal government and several states have challenged some of Smithfield's recent acquisition deals and, in a few instances, have forced the company to agree to modify its waste-lagoon systems.
These initiatives, of course, come comically late. Industrial hog operations control at least seventy-five percent of the market. Smithfield's market dominance is hardly at risk: Twenty-six percent of the pork processed in this country is Smithfield pork. The company's expansion does not seem to be slowing down: Over the past two years, Smithfield's annual sales grew by $1.5 billion. In September, the company announced that it is merging with Premium Standard Farms, the nation's second-largest hog farmer and sixth-largest pork processor. If the deal goes through, Smithfield will own more pigs than the next eight largest pork producers in the nation combined. The company's market leverage and political clout will allow it to produce ever greater quantities of hog waste.
Smithfield points to the improvements it has made to its waste-disposal systems in recent years. In 2003, Smithfield announced that it was investing $20 million in a program to turn its pig shit in Utah into alternative fuel. It now produces approximately 2,500 gallons a day of biomethanol and has begun building a facility in Texas to produce clean-burning biodiesel fuel.
"We're paying a lot of attention to energy right now," says Treacy, the Smithfield vice president. "We've come such a long way in the last five years." The company, he adds, has undergone a "complete cultural shift on environmental matters."
But cultural shifts, no matter how genuine, cannot counter the unalterable physical reality of Smithfield Foods itself. "All of a sudden we have this 800-pound gorilla in the pork industry," Successful Farming magazine warned -- six years ago. There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company. According to Dr. Michael Mallin, a marine scientist at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who has researched the effects of corporate farming on water quality, the volumes of concentrated pig waste produced by industrial hog farms are plainly not containable in small areas. The land, he says, "just can't absorb everything that comes out of the barns." From the moment that Smithfield attained its current size, its waste-disposal problem became conventionally insoluble.
Joe Luter, like his pig shit, has an innate aversion to being contained in any way. Ever since American regulators and lawmakers started forcing Smithfield to spend more money on waste treatment and attempting to limit the company's expansion, Luter has been looking to do business elsewhere. In recent years, his gaze has fallen on the lucrative and unregulated markets of Poland.
In 1999, Luter bought a state-owned company called Animex, one of Poland's biggest hog processors. Then he began doing business through a Polish subsidiary called Prima Farms, acquiring huge moribund Communist-era hog farms and converting them into concentrated feeding operations. Pork prices in Poland were low, so Smithfield's sweeping expansion didn't make strict economic sense, except that it had the virtue of pushing small hog farmers toward bankruptcy. By 2003, Animex was operating six subsidiary companies and seven processing plants, selling nine brands of meat and taking in $338 million annually.
The usual violations occurred. Near one of Smithfield's largest plants, in Byszkowo, an enormous pool of frozen pig shit, pumped into a lagoon in winter, melted and ran into two nearby lakes. The lake water turned brown; residents in local villages got skin rashes and eye infections; the stench made it impossible to eat. A recent report to the Helsinki Commission found that Smithfield's pollution throughout Poland was damaging the country's ecosystems. Overapplication was endemic. Farmers without permits were piping liquid pig shit directly into watersheds that fed into the Baltic Sea.
When Joseph Luter entered Poland, he announced that he planned to turn the country into the "Iowa of Europe." Iowa has always been America's biggest hog producer and remains the nation's chief icon of hog farming. Having subdued Poland, Luter announced this summer that all of Eastern Europe -- "particularly Romania" -- should become the "Iowa of Europe." Seventy-five percent of Romania's hogs currently come from household farms. Over the next five years, Smithfield plans to spend $800 million in Romania to change that.