It's been a while since this column has visited a corporate hog farm, which doesn't mean the subject's gone away. In fact, some interesting things have happened in the hog business.
Between 1996 and today, thousands of hog farmers have gone out of business. Corporate consolidation by giants like Murphy and Cargill drove down prices for the farmers so that the cost of raising a hog was less than you could get for it. Now, grain prices are down but hog prices have made a little bounce.
In fact, good rains and good prices always bring out the optimism in farmers. Even if they sold off all their stock in the low-price days of 1998 and have to start fresh, midwestern farmers are getting back in.
My feed store man never sold off all his hogs. He's always had a few, and he's been careful to keep biotech seeds out of his corn, so he could guarantee no GMOs for the customers that seek him out. And, he's been quietly collecting hogs with a certain genetic quirk.
He calls them "mule-footed" hogs, and instead of a foot that's split, or "cloven," like the foot of most hogs, these "mule-footed" hogs have a U-shaped foot like a mule or horse. He started with one mule-footed sow. Out of her litters of ten or twelve piglets, there'd be one or two with the characteristic. He saves them, then breeds them and so forth. After five years of watching, he says "maybe they do better," meaning they might gain weight faster and he has eleven of them. At that rate, there's no danger that his mule-footed swine will swamp the market.
This tinkering has been going on on family farms forever. Every breed of chicken, hog, sheep, cow, horse, or dog, for that matter, has been developed because someone became interested in one characteristic, and saved the offspring that exhibited it.
The characteristic might have been performance-based, like rapid growth or rich milk, or it might have been something that helped the animal survive under tough conditions. It might have even been a curiosity, like curly hair or certain markings (or mule feet).
The breeds have become the pride of certain regions. For example, every European country has its own breeds of which to be proud. In France, which caught on to this a long time ago, there's a breed for every province.
Today in the United States, breeding animals has become a big business. The biggest breeders, the corporate giants of the business, are in hot competition to find the perfect animal and quickly produce carbon copies.
According to Feedstuffs Magazine (June 26, 2000), giant Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork company, will soon be into swine cloning. Smithfield has signed an agreement with pro-cloners ProLinia Inc. More specifically, Smithfield has "acquired a minority stake in the research company, which is affiliated with the University of Georgia."
"Under the agreement, ProLinia will transfer cloned embryos, through overnight delivery, to accelerate genetic improvement and boost meat quality uniformity," according to Mike Wanner, ProLinia president. He said the research company is striving to become the least-cost, high-volume genetic supplier to the pork and cattle industries."
Note the word "industries." Those guys have millions of hogs, packed 700 or more to the football-sized metal building. Those hogs live their sorry lives under unspeakable conditions, treated with hormones, antibiotics, wormers, lice preventers, and so forth, maintained like parts of a giant machine.
In fact, one of the beauties of uniformity is that each animal can be treated exactly alike, receiving the same feed, injections, and butchering treatment as all of its brothers. Instead of treating workers fairly, which has been impossible for this industry, they'll just eliminate the workers.
"Industries" is the opposite of "farmers" but not the opposite of "universities." In fact, the Feedstuffs article goes on: "The biotech company's management team includes ... Clifton Baile, chief executive officer, who moved to the University of Georgia after several years with Monsanto."
Smithfield can well afford to buy cloned embryos, executives and public universities. After raising consumer prices by 14% and doing more overseas business, their sales for the fiscal year ended April 30, 2000 were a whopping $5.2 billion, an increase of 36% over 1999.
Even with increased consumer prices, though, Smithfield's net income was down for the year, to $75.1 million from $94.9 million in 1999. They blamed high hog prices, the same as those bringing our neighbors back into the business. They might have looked at the cost of buying technology, but no matter. Smithfield plans to bring back profitability by whopping consumers again.
Fully committed to weird science, Smithfield and the other hog companies have also been injecting hams with water for decades. The water makes hams look bigger without the costly addition of -- well -- meat. It works so well that now packers are injecting pork chops and ham roasts with a 7 to 10% saline (that means salt) solution.
They call injecting salty water "enhancing fresh pork" or "pumping lean fresh pork." The process is designed for "time-challenged" consumers because it cooks faster. "Time-challenged" consumers wait until 4:30 p.m. to decide what's for supper, and then spend 30 minutes in the kitchen. And we choose precooked foods, or precut, basted, marinated or preseasoned, ready-to-cook meat.
Even products labeled "natural" can be pumped. Smithfield's Lean N' Easy and Lean Generation brands are pumped with 10% sodium lactate solution. But Smithfield's not alone. Farmland, Seaboard, Hormel, and Premium Standard Farms all have their favorite pump systems, adding salt or sodium phosphate to pork.
So there's the future of corporate pork: cloned, drugged, pumped, and did I mention radiated?
Compare that to my neighbors, caring for individual animals and watching for the occasional odd foot and I think you'll be able to choose which one to support with your dollars.
The other day somebody called to tell me that Smithfield was developing feeds to take the odor out of hog shit. He said that will take care of all the problems and I should come to a meeting and learn all about it.
Sorry, pal. They can make poop smell like roses, but the industry still stinks.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org