So often, we hear government critics decry “pork” projects and “pork” spending. These phrases are figurative, indicating wasteful use of public funds. But never have these phrases had such a literal meaning, as our government actually bails out the pork industry when it overproduces and buys up volumes of surplus pork, typically by dumping these surplus commodities into our nation’s schools, child care centers, and domestic food assistance programs.
A recent news article by the Iowa Pork Producers Association reports that the USDA has bought roughly 72 million pounds of pork valued at $117 million through commodity programs, and that more will be purchased when the government’s new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. These commodity programs are only one of several avenues for providing USDA subsidies to the pork industry—with government giveaways to the industry transcending political party and occurring in every recent Administration.
Photo credit Farm Sanctuary
These routine handouts are not enough for the pork industry, though. They now want an additional massive infusion of funds, at a time when our nation’s debt is larger than ever—and they claim the bailout is needed because pork sales dropped when the media used the phrase "swine flu." The National Pork Producers Council wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, asking for $250 million, and governors from nine large pork-producing states (Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin) chimed in and requested a similar government bailout.
These amounts are staggering, particularly when you consider that these casual giveaways of hundreds of millions of dollars dwarf the entire USDA spending on animal welfare programs in the United States. For enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, which is supposed to ensure basic protections for millions of animals in laboratories, breeding facilities, zoos, circuses, and other facilities, the federal government invested just $21.5 million last year. To enforce the Horse Protection Act, enacted to halt the widespread and abusive practice of “soring”—where intense pain is deliberately inflicted on show horses’ legs and hooves to make them step higher in the Tennessee Walking Horse industry—the federal government invests a measly $500,000.
And here’s what the taxpayers get for their generosity to Big Pork—appalling mistreatment of animals, extreme confinement of breeding sows in crates where they can barely move, reckless overcrowding and non-therapeutic antibiotic dosing of pigs which threatens public health, and dangerous mismanagement of massive volumes of pig waste that pollute groundwater and putrefy the air in rural communities throughout the nation, killing aquatic life, dropping property values, and making life miserable for neighbors.
Does this sound like an industry that should get millions of your tax dollars? The federal government required changes in the banking industry and the auto industry when it gave those industries bailout funds. If our government continues to give money to the pork industry—and we hope they get zero dollars in response to this latest request—the release of future taxpayer funds should be conditioned on the implementation of a written plan to move the industry away from its most reckless practices, as the government has done with other industries.
At hog factory farms, breeding sows suffer from intensive confinement in gestation crates. Pigs raised for meat undergo painful mutilations—including castration and tail docking—without anesthesia. These animals spend the majority of their lives in crowded, stressful, and unsanitary sheds, where they are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, a reckless practice that hastens the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. During transport to slaughter, pigs may suffer from hunger, thirst, weather extremes, injury, and disease. And “downer” pigs—animals too sick, injured or fatigued to stand up—may also be abused or dragged to slaughter.
The governors, in making their pitch for more money for the pork industry, argued that the money is needed, in part, because of the negative impact of the H1N1 swine flu virus on pork sales. But this industry is not merely an innocent victim of forces of nature—the crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions at confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and in transport apparently led to the emergence of the ancestors of the current H1N1 swine flu threat (please see humanesociety.org/swineflu), and these conditions contribute to continued risks of zoonotic disease emergence and spread.
It’s time for the USDA to reward farmers who are producing healthful foods, including fruits and vegetables, in a more humane and environmentally sustainable manner. And in an era of fiscal responsibility, the unchecked handouts to Big Agribusiness need to end.