Smithfield’s dirty secrets

May 6, 2009

Nicole Colson examines the record of the pork producer associated with the swine flu outbreak in Mexico.

IN THE face of growing fears about the swine flu outbreak, attention is settling on the possible role of the modern factory farming system--specifically, a hog farming operation in Mexico run by a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.

Some evidence indicates the outbreak may have originated in the Mexican state of Veracruz, possibly from an industrial pig farm near the town of Perote in the western part of the state. According to Tom Philpott, writing on the environmental Web site Grist, the Mexican newspaper La Jornada reported in early April that a Mexican government agency suggested the disease could have started with "clouds of flies" living in manure lagoons at the hog farm.

In fact, like Smithfield operations in the U.S. and other countries, the "farm" at Perote is actually a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO)--a modern pig factory, where 950,000 hogs are "produced" each year. As Philpott noted:

Residents [of Perote] believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak.

Cramped conditions inside an industrial pig farm
Cramped conditions inside an industrial pig farm

The company denies responsibility, but "a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste, and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms," Philpott wrote.

GRANJAS CARROLL is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods--one of the biggest corporations in the U.S., with profits of $166.8 million in 2008.

Although it's by no means clear that Granjas Carroll is the source of the swine flu outbreak, a look at how Smithfield runs it operations shows why that might seem a likely possibility.

As Jeff Tietz noted in the 2006 Rolling Stone article "Boss Hog", in order to produce 6 billion pounds of pork each year:

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...

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.

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Tietz notes that pigs produce three times as much excrement as humans, with estimates suggesting that Smithfield operations produce 26 million tons of waste a year--enough to fill four Yankee Stadiums with a toxic brew that "is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure" because of the pathogens, drugs and chemicals present in it.

If conditions are bad for the animals (and the surrounding communities affected by this toxic mess), they are equally bad for Smithfield workers--who are forced to endure long hours of grueling and repetitive work, in often dangerous conditions, at low pay.

Keith Ludlum, who worked the livestock line at the company's Tar Heel, N.C., plant, described his workday in an interview with Socialist Worker in 2006:

Those of us in livestock report to work at a quarter to six and get started running hogs up into the kill floor of the plant.

Of course, livestock is extremely messy, and it's made even worse because they've got drains in the pen area and where the hogs are stored at, which they refuse to unclog. So you get a pool of hog feces and urine and water building up, and that gets splashed on you when you're running the hogs up into the plant...Every day, there are people getting hurt all over the plant.

The pace on the kill and cut floors is incredibly fast--just 5 to 10 minutes to kill, bleed, and completely eviscerate a hog. At the Tar Heel plant, some 6,000 workers slaughter an average of 32,000 hogs in a day.

According to Ludlum, when an injury occurs on the livestock line:

[management] simply tells you to keep running the hogs. They want to keep their production up. There are tripping hazards and things that they could correct. They choose not to, because they'd have to spend money, and it would also slow down their production.

The company basically has an assembly line set up, and the human beings are treated like machines. They're sitting there for eight hours a day, and they don't even have the chance to wipe their brow, because they're covered in hog feces or blood. They're drinking from water coolers that other workers have been at who are covered in hog feces and hog blood. They're hard-working people, and they are being abused and mistreated.

A 2005 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, titled Blood, Sweat and Fear, detailed the abuses workers face at Smithfield and other meatpacking plants across the country, including health problems that are ignored.

As one worker told HRW, "Two or three times a year I get infections under my fingernails. I think it's from the dirty water getting into my gloves. When I go to the clinic they freeze my fingertips and cut out the pus. They don't write anything down about that or do anything to change it."

When workers have tried to organize in the past in order to fight back against such awful conditions on the job, Smithfield resorted to a campaign of intimidation, threats and pitting immigrant workers against Black and white workers. During a 1997 union organizing campaign, according to HRW, management at the Tar Heel plant orchestrated an assault and arrest of supporters of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. In 2003 and 2004, during organizing attempts, management posted armed police in the plant.

After years of organizing and a campaign that saw boycotts, marches and more, workers at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant voted to join the UFCW in December of last year. Following the vote, Smithfield worker Larry Murphy told the Virginian-Pilot, "We needed a voice to stand up for us. There need to be changes there."

As the potential of a more serious swine flu outbreak looms, there need to be more changes at Smithfield--and throughout the entire meat industry--not just for its workers, but for the health and safety of us all.

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