From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
America’s top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has
destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the
largest fines in EPA history. Welcome to the dark side of the other
by JEFF TIETZ
Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the
world, killed 27 million hogs last year. That’s a number worth
considering. A slaughter-weight hog is fifty percent heavier than a
person. The logistical challenge of processing that many pigs each year
is roughly equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human
populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia,
Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, San Jose, Detroit,
Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Austin, Memphis,
Baltimore, Fort Worth, Charlotte, El Paso, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston,
Denver, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Las Vegas, Portland,
Oklahoma City and Tucson.
Smithfield Foods actually faces a more difficult task than
transmogrifying the populations of America’s thirty-two largest cities
into edible packages of meat. Hogs produce three times more excrement
than human beings do. The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield
subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5
million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield’s
total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four
Yankee Stadiums. Even when divided among the many small pig production
units that surround the company’s slaughterhouses, that is not a
Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this
year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company
treated its effluvia as big-city governments do — even if it came
marginally close to that standard — it would lose money. So many of
its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their
slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the
elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river
systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental
responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield’s
A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is
another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a
continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste
than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield’s
efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each
year. That’s a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only
two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in
astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.
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 lagoons themselves are so viscous and venomous that if someone
falls in it is foolish to try to save him. A few years ago, a truck
driver in Oklahoma was transferring pig shit to a lagoon when he and
his truck went over the side. It took almost three weeks to recover his
body. In 1992, when a worker making repairs to a lagoon in Minnesota
began to choke to death on the fumes, another worker dived in after
him, and they died the same death. In another instance, a worker who
was repairing a lagoon in Michigan was overcome by the fumes and fell
in. His fifteen-year-old nephew dived in to save him but was overcome,
the worker’s cousin went in to save the teenager but was overcome, the
worker’s older brother dived in to save them but was overcome, and then
the worker’s father dived in. They all died in pig shit.
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.
“The animal-rights people,” he once said, “want to impose a
vegetarian’s society on the U.S. Most vegetarians I know are neurotic.”
When the Environmental Protection Agency cited Smithfield for thousands
of violations of the Clean Water Act, Luter responded by comparing what
he claimed were the number of violations the company could
theoretically have been charged with (2.5 million, by his calculation)
to the number of documented violations up to that point (seventy-four).
“A very, very small percent,” he said.
Luter grew up butchering hogs in his father’s slaughterhouse, in the
town of Smithfield, Virginia. When he took over the family business
forty years ago, it was a local, marginally profitable meatpacking
operation. Under Luter, Smithfield was soon making enough money to
begin purchasing neighboring meatpackers. From the beginning, Luter
thought monopolistically. He bought out his local competition until he
completely dominated the regional pork-processing market.
But Luter was dissatisfied. The company was still buying most of its
hogs from local farmers; Luter wanted to create a system, known as
“total vertical integration,” in which Smithfield controls every stage
of production, from the moment a hog is born until the day it passes
through the slaughterhouse. So he imposed a new kind of contract on
farmers: The company would own the living hogs; the contractors would
raise the pigs and be responsible for managing the hog shit and
disposing of dead hogs. The system made it impossible for small hog
farmers to survive — those who could not handle thousands and
thousands of pigs were driven out of business. “It was a simple matter
of economic power,” says Eric Tabor, chief of staff for Iowa’s attorney
Smithfield’s expansion was unique in the history of the industry:
Between 1990 and 2005, it grew by more than 1,000 percent. In 1997 it
was the nation’s seventh-largest pork producer; by 1999 it was the
largest. Smithfield now kills one of every four pigs sold commercially
in the United States. As Smithfield expanded, it consolidated its
operations, clustering millions of fattening hogs around its
slaughterhouses. Under Luter, the company was turning into a great
pollution machine: Smithfield was suddenly producing unheard-of amounts
of pig shit laced with drugs and chemicals. According to the EPA,
Smithfield’s largest farm-slaughterhouse operation — in Tar Heel,
North Carolina — dumps more toxic waste into the nation’s water each
year than all but three other industrial facilities in America.
Luter likes to tell this story: An old man and his grandson are walking
in a cemetery. They see a tombstone that reads here lies charles w.
johnson, a man who had no enemies.
“Gee, Granddad,” the boy says, “this man must have been a great man. He
had no enemies.”
“Son,” the grandfather replies, “if a man didn’t have any enemies, he
didn’t do a damn thing with his life.”
If Luter were to set this story in Ivy Hill Cemetery in his hometown of
Smithfield, it would be an object lesson in how to make enemies. Back
when he was growing up, the branches of the cemetery’s trees were bent
with the weight of scores of buzzards. The waste stream from the
Luters’ meatpacking plant, with its thickening agents of pig innards
and dead fish, flowed nearby. Luter learned the family trade well. Last
year, before he retired as CEO of Smithfield, he took home $10,802,134.
He currently holds $19,296,000 in unexercised stock options.
One day this fall, a retired Marine Corps colonel and environmental
activist named Rick Dove, the former riverkeeper of North Carolina’s
Neuse River, arranged to have me flown over Smithfield’s operation in
North Carolina. Dove, a focused guy of sixty-seven years, is unable to
talk about corporate hog farming without becoming angry. After he got
out of the Marine Corps in 1987, he became a commercial fisherman,
which he had wanted to do since he was a kid. He was successful, and
his son went into business with him. Then industrial hog farming
arrived and killed the fish, and both Dove and his son got seriously
Dove and other activists provide the only effective oversight of
corporate hog farming in the area. The industry has long made generous
campaign contributions to politicians responsible for regulating hog
farms. In 1995, while Smithfield was trying to persuade the state of
Virginia to reduce a large fine for the company’s pollution, Joseph
Luter gave $100,000 to then-governor George Allen’s political-action
committee. In 1998, corporate hog farms in North Carolina spent $1
million to help defeat state legislators who wanted to clean up
open-pit lagoons. The state has consistently failed to employ enough
inspectors to ensure that hog farms are complying with environmental
To document violations, Dove and other activists regularly hire private
planes to inspect corporate hog operations from the air. The airport
Dove uses, in New Bern, North Carolina, is tiny; the plane he uses, a
1975 Cessna single-prop, looks tiny even in the tiny airport. Its cabin
has four cracked yellow linoleum seats. It looks like the interior of a
1975 VW bug, but with more dials. The pilot, Joe Corby, is older than I
expected him to be.
“I have a GPS, so I can kinda guide you,” Dove says to Corby while we
taxi to the runway.
“Oh, you do!” Corby says, apparently unaccustomed to such a luxury.
We take off. “Bunch of turkey buzzards,” Dove says, looking out the
window. “They’re big.”
“Don’t wanna hit them,” Corby says. “They would be . . . very
We climb to 2,000 feet and head toward the densest concentration of
hogs in the world. The landscape at first is unsuspiciously pastoral —
fields planted in corn or soybeans or cotton, tree lines staking
creeks, a few unincorporated villages of prefab houses. But then we
arrive at the global locus of hog farming, and the countryside turns
into an immense subdivision for pigs. Hog farms that contract with
Smithfield differ slightly in dimension but otherwise look identical:
parallel rows of six, eight or twelve one-story hog houses, some nearly
the size of a football field, containing as many as 10,000 hogs, and
backing onto a single large lagoon. From the air I see that the lagoons
come in two shades of pink: dark or Pepto Bismol — vile, freaky colors
in the middle of green farmland.
From the plane, Smithfield’s farms replicate one another as far as I
can see in every direction. Visibility is about four miles. I count the
lagoons. There are 103. That works out to at least 50,000 hogs per
square mile. You could fly for an hour, Dove says, and all you would
see is corporate hog operations, with little towns of modular homes and
a few family farms pinioned amid them.
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
Looking down from the plane, we watch as several of Smithfield’s
farmers spray their hog shit straight up into the air as a fine mist:
It looks like a public fountain. Lofted and atomized, the shit is blown
clear of the company’s property. People who breathe the shit-infused
air suffer from bronchitis, asthma, heart palpitations, headaches,
diarrhea, nosebleeds and brain damage. In 1995, a woman downwind from a
corporate hog farm in Olivia, Minnesota, called a poison-control center
and described her symptoms. “Ma’am,” the poison-control officer told
her, “the only symptoms of hydrogen-sulfide poisoning you’re not
experiencing are seizures, convulsions and death. Leave the area
immediately.” When you fly over eastern North Carolina, you realize
that virtually everyone in this part of the state lives close to a
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
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
As we fly over the hog farms, I notice that springs and streams and
swamplands and lakes are everywhere. Eastern North Carolina is a
coastal plain, grooved and tilted towards the sea — and Smithfield’s
sprayfields almost always incline toward creeks or creek-fed swamps.
Half-perforated pipes called irrigation tiles, commonly used in modern
farming, run beneath many of the fields; when they become unplugged,
the tiles effectively operate as drainpipes, dumping pig waste into
surrounding tributaries. Many studies have documented the harm caused
by hog-waste runoff; one showed the pig shit raising the level of
nitrogen and phosphorus in a receiving river as much as sixfold. In
eastern North Carolina, nine rivers and creeks in the Cape Fear and
Neuse River basins have been classified by the state as either
“negatively impacted” or environmentally “impaired.”
Although Smithfield may not have enough crops to absorb its pig shit,
its contract farmers do plant plenty of hay. In 1992, when the number
of hogs in North Carolina began to skyrocket, so much hay was planted
to deal with the fresh volumes of pig shit that the market for hay
collapsed. But the hay from hog farms can be so nitrate-heavy that it
sickens livestock. For a while, former governor Jim Hunt — a recipient
of hog-industry campaign money — was feeding hog-farm hay to his cows.
Locals say it made the cows sick and irritable, and the animals kicked
Hunt several times, seemingly in revenge. It’s a popular tale in
eastern North Carolina.
To appreciate what this agglomeration of hog production does to the
people who live near it, you have to appreciate the smell of
industrial-strength pig shit. The ascending stench can nauseate pilots
at 3,000 feet. On the day we fly over Smithfield’s operation there is
little wind to stir up the lagoons or carry the stink, and the region’s
current drought means that lagoon operators aren’t spraying very
frequently. It is the best of times. We can smell the farms from the
air, but while the smell is foul it is intermittent and not
To get a really good whiff, I drive down a narrow country road of white
sand and walk up to a Smithfield lagoon. At the end of the road stands
a tractor and some spraying equipment. The fetid white carcass of a hog
lies in a dumpster known as a “dead box.” Flies cover the hog’s snout.
Its hooves look like high heels. Millions of factory-farm hogs — one
study puts it at ten percent — die before they make it to the killing
floor. Some are taken to rendering plants, where they are propelled
through meat grinders and then fed cannibalistically back to other
living hogs. Others are dumped into big open pits called “dead holes,”
or left in the dumpsters for so long that they swell and explode. The
borders of hog farms are littered with dead pigs in all stages of
decomposition, including thousands of bleached pig bones. Locals like
to say that the bears and buzzards of eastern North Carolina are
unusually lazy and fat.
No one seems to be around. It is quiet except for the gigantic exhaust
fans affixed to the six hog houses. There is an unwholesome tang in the
air, but there is no wind and it isn’t hot, so I can’t smell the lagoon
itself. I walk the few hundred yards over to it. It is covered with a
thick film; its edge is a narrow beach of big black flies. Here, its
odor is leaking out. I take a deep breath.
Concentrated manure is my first thought, but I am fighting an impulse
to vomit even as I am thinking it. I’ve probably smelled stronger odors
in my life, but nothing so insidiously and instantaneously nauseating.
It takes my mind a second or two to get through the odor’s first coat.
The smell at its core has a frightening, uniquely enriched putridity,
both deep-sweet and high-sour. I back away from it and walk back to the
car but I remain sick — it’s a shivery, retchy kind of nausea — for a
good five minutes. That’s apparently characteristic of industrial pig
shit: It keeps making you sick for a good while after you’ve stopped
smelling it. It’s an unduly invasive, adhesive smell. Your whole body
reacts to it. It’s as if something has physically entered your stomach.
A little later I am driving and I catch a crosswind stench — it must
have been from a stirred-up lagoon — and from the moment it hit me a
timer in my body started ticking: You can only function for so long in
that smell. The memory of it makes you gag.
Unsurprisingly, prolonged exposure to hog-factory stench makes the
smell extremely hard to get off. Hog factory workers stink up every
store they walk into. I run into a few local guys who had made the
mistake of accepting jobs in hog houses, and they tell me that you just
have to wait the smell out: You’ll eventually grow new hair and skin.
If you work in a Smithfield hog house for a year and then quit, you
might stink for the next three months.
If the temperature and wind aren’t right and the lagoon operators are
spraying, people in hog country can’t hang laundry or sit on their
porches or mow their lawns. Epidemiological studies show that those who
live near hog lagoons suffer from abnormally high levels of depression,
tension, anger, fatigue and confusion. “We are used to farm odors,”
says one local farmer. “These are not farm odors.” Sometimes the stink
literally knocks people down: They walk out of the house to get
something in the yard and become so nauseous they collapse. When they
retain consciousness, they crawl back into the house.
That has happened several times to Julian and Charlotte Savage, an
elderly couple whose farmland now abuts a Smithfield sprayfield — one
of several meant to absorb the shit of 50,000 hogs. The Savages live in
a small, modular kit house. Sitting in the kitchen, Charlotte tells me
that she once saw Julian collapse in the yard and ran out and threw a
coat over his head and dragged him back inside. Before Smithfield
arrived, Julian’s family farmed the land for the better part of a
century. He raised tobacco, corn, wheat, turkeys and chickens. Now he
has respiratory problems and rarely attempts to go outside.
Behind the house, a creek bordering the sprayfield flows into a swamp;
the Savages have seen hog waste running right into the creek. Once,
during a flood, the Savages found pig shit six inches deep pooled
around their house. They had to drain it by digging trenches, which
took three weeks. Charlotte has noticed that nitrogen fallout keeps the
trees around the house a deep synthetic green. There’s a big buzzard
The Savages say they can keep the pig-shit smell out of their house by
shutting the doors and windows, but to me the walls reek faintly. They
have a windbreak — an eighty-foot-wide strip of forest — between
their house and the fields. They know people who don’t, though, and
when the smell is bad, those people, like everyone, shut their windows
and slam their front doors shut quickly behind them, but their coffee
and spaghetti and carrots still smell and taste like pig shit.
The Savages have had what seemed to be hog shit in their bath water.
Their well water, which was clean before Smithfield arrived, is now
suspect. “I try not to drink it,” Charlotte says. “We mostly just drink
drinks, soda and things.” While we talk, Julian spends most of the time
on the living room couch; his lungs are particularly bad today. Then he
comes into the kitchen. Among other things, he says: I can’t breathe
it, it’ll put you on the ground; you can’t walk, you fall down; you
breathe you gon’ die; you go out and smell it one time and your ass is
gone; it’s not funny to be around it. It’s not funny, honey. He could
have said all this somewhat tragicomically, with a thin smile, but
instead he cries the whole time.
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
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.
Investor relations inquiries Jerry Hostetter
Vice President — Investor Relations and Corporate Communications
Smithfield Foods, Inc.
499 Park Avenue, Suite 600
New York, NY 10022
E-mail ir [at] smithfieldfoods [dot] com
or use our Information Request Form