It’s been a pretty disastrous public relations week for Smithfield Foods, the Virginia conglomerate that is the world’s largest pig producer. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran unflattering, prominent stories about the far-flung factory farms operated by Smithfield.
Since the swine flu outbreak, Smithfield has been under intense scrutiny, since it co-owns a massive pig factory farm near La Gloria, Mexico, which was ground zero for one of the first cases of swine flu. The virus has now spread to other nations throughout the world and is classed as a Level 5 pandemic alert by the World Health Organization. Smithfield first opened its factory farms there after the Congress enacted NAFTA in 1993.
There’s no evidence yet that the pandemic swine flu virus originated at the Smithfield-operated factory farms there, but that possibility has prompted long-simmering antagonism against the company to bubble over, according to Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post. Locals have protested the building of the enormous operation because of concerns about the health risks posed by the farm. One local resident told The Post, “You start to vomit and you get headaches, your eyes begin to tear. We have to get in the truck and find a place where you can’t smell it anymore.”
Also this week, The New York Times ran a major story about how Smithfield’s operations in Romania and Poland are displacing pig farmers and leading to a similar set of human health and social concerns. Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle of The Times report that Smithfield has been the beneficiary of multimillion-euro European Union subsidies, even though it is displacing farmers to cease their operations and leave these communities. In Romania, the number of pig farmers has declined 90 percent—to 52,100 in the span of just five years, and the Smithfield farms “are among the top sources of air and soil pollution, according to a local government report.”
In January 2007, Smithfield announced that it would begin to phase out gestation crates for breeding pigs and transition to group housing, a move which The HSUS applauded. That very important and positive action notwithstanding, we have long been concerned about the broad set of problems associated with mega-animal factories. Animal cruelty, air and water pollution, the dissolution of small farms, and the reduction in property values and the quality of life in rural communities are not just occurring in disadvantaged communities in Mexico and Eastern Europe and in other parts of the world, but also in communities throughout the United States.
The market has hidden the full range of costs of cheap meat, milk, and eggs. Communities in the United States and throughout the world know these costs all too well, and it’s up to policy makers and consumers to make a more inclusive calculation when they look at farm policy and their food budget.