Yesterday’s news that a massive Chinese meat producer, Shuanghai, has agreed to pay $4.7 billion to acquire American pork giant Smithfield Foods was a jarring reminder of the trend toward an increasingly centralized global trade in farm animals. While demand for meat in the U.S. has been falling for several years, demand in China for pork and other meats has been steadily increasing. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a Chinese meat company is interested in buying the world’s largest pork producer, and that the producer is interested in greater access to the country’s billion-plus consumers.
With the rise of factory farming in western nations in the last half century, harsh and unforgiving treatment of animals in the meat industry in these parts of the world has become the norm. In China, the movement against factory farming is in its developmental stage, and that means there have been even fewer restraints on the growth or the excesses of the industrialized pork sector. Extreme confinement systems developed in the U.S. have been exported throughout the world, including China, and now we see foreign business interests buying up American meat companies directly.
A number of Chinese meat producers have recently come under public scrutiny within China for animal welfare, environmental, and food safety abuses, and it will be an important Humane Society International priority to engage these parties in the future.
In any event, we are relieved that Shuanghai’s potential purchase of Smithfield doesn’t appear likely to affect the policies Smithfield has put in place to phase out the confinement of sows in gestation crates (at its company-owned facilities) over the next four years. That policy should be replicated by Smithfield’s major competitors and be applied to the company’s contractors, too.
But gestation crate confinement of pigs, as terrible as it is, is far from the only animal welfare problem plaguing the pork industry. Just this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General released a disturbing report concluding that the agency’s “enforcement policies do not deter swine slaughter plants from becoming repeat violators of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. As a result, plants have repeatedly violated the same regulations with little or no consequence.”
Hundreds of incidents of contaminated meat – including meat tainted with feces – went unpunished, as did numerous “egregious violations” of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. For example, inside a Pennsylvania slaughter plant, “a hog that had been stunned and bled regained consciousness. The hog was able to right its head, make noise, kick, and splash water in reaction to being placed in a scalding tank.” Despite a live and conscious animal being drowned in a tank of scalding water, this plant faced no suspension.
Lax enforcement at meat plants has become routine, and that’s precisely why investigations by The HSUS and other animal welfare groups are so critical in sniffing out and exposing abuse. After all, it wasn’t the USDA that uncovered horrific cruelties at slaughter plants like Hallmark/Westland and Bushway—it was HSUS investigators.
This is one reason that the defeat of whistleblower suppression bills – also known as ag-gag bills – is so critical. At the meat industry’s behest, lawmakers in 11 states have introduced bills in 2013 to crack down on unauthorized investigations and whistleblowing activities. Earlier this month, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed his state’s version of an ag-gag bill, and we have stalled or killed similar bills in nine other states. One bill, even more far-reaching than Tennessee’s, is pending in North Carolina, and we are in a tough fight to kill it.
Just yesterday, the editorial board of the Fayetteville Observer – the hometown paper of the state Senator sponsoring the bill – condemned this ag-gag effort, summing it up well: “We hope [Sen. Wesley] Meredith will let this dreadful legislation die humanely in committee.” We hope so too, and we’ll continue to press for the protection of pigs and other farm animals, and for the right of the public to see and understand how these animals are treated on industrialized factory farms – no matter if the companies are owned by Americans, by Chinese business owners, or any other conglomerates in any other part of the world. As Americans and other people throughout the world become ever more disassociated from their food supply, transparency and public understanding are more vital than ever.