A month ago, this column focused on the pork checkoff, a mandatory tax of $4.50 per $1,000 paid on sales by hog producers. The money filters through US Department of Agriculture and supports National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). According to the Campaign for Family Farms, the checkoff has paid $500 million to the Council. For NPPC, today's checkoff brings in a steady $54 million per year.
In October 2000, the checkoff was voted out of existence by family farmers 53% to 47%. Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture at the time, announced that the checkoff would be cancelled.
But the Bush administration has renewed the pork checkoff.
That's right. Instead of following a clear directive from voters, Ann Veneman, the new USDA head, has negotiated a program restructuring National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). A restructuring. That was not the question.
And who, you may ask, gave NPPC authority to negotiate? Obviously, it wasn't the hog farmers who voted the checkoff down. That, it turns out, doesn't matter in the land of Veneman.
So, say it loud and say it proud: "Pork Barrel." USDA has turned its back on family farmers and crept into bed with Al "T'anks for the memories" Tank, Director and C.E.O. of NPPC.
If the NPPC-USDA had given it a thought, they could create a voluntary checkoff, depend on industry to fund it, and the industry would go on almost as usual. Because the pork on our tables come almost completely from industries like Cargill, Smithfield, Continental Grain and Seaboard. When checkoff began, there were more than 375,000 independent hog farmers in the USA. Today, there are about 70,000.
NPPC brags that a major success of the pork barrel pork checkoff has been the invention of "McRib" sandwiches. McRibs, a aggregate of chopped up secret ingredients is processed by factories and extruded into ribby-type shapes, drenched in barbecue sauce and served with three pickle slices on a bun.
The checkoff boys say that McRib gives hog farmers a way to compete for the fast-food bucks because hamburger frenzy, dating back to the first fast-food places, squeezed pork off American dinner plates. In truth, McRibs are the star in a crown of "mass-not-class" meat products so increasingly processed that they must be injected with flavors to be palatable.
The conditions of the hog industry have become so intolerable in terms of animal abuse, worker injustice, and environmental insult, that Robert Kennedy Jr., and Jan Schlictman, who fought industry on behalf of a polluted and disease-ridden New Jersey community, have brought together a coalition of top-notch lawyers and non-profit environmental and consumer organizations to support a suit against Smithfield.
Kennedy and Schlictman brought their team to Kansas City to announce the lawsuit on Wednesday, Feb. 28, and filed three suits against Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest hog producer on March 1, which is National Pig Day. The next day, Kennedy addressed an estimated 700 hog farmers and supporters at the National Farmer's Union convention in Rochester, N.Y. "We are taking unprecedented action against the factory hog industry," he announced, "These are outlaws and bullies who have destroyed thousands of miles of public waterways and aquifers and have shattered the lives of tens of thousands of rural Americans. They have used hefty contributions and political clout to insulate themselves from prosecution for their crimes. Now they ought to know that the marshal has come to Dodge ... We will continue to fight against these polluters in every state where they have fouled the ari and water and have brought economic depression to family farmers."
The new lawsuits charge that Smithfield broke laws under the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Federal Resource and Conservation and Recovery Act. At least seven other class-action suits have been or will be filed in state courts in North Carolina and Missouri.
In Kansas City, Kennedy likened the new suits to the successful attack against tobacco. In both suits, and in the successful Schlictman suit that was the model for the film A Civil Action starring John Travolta, arguments have defended the rights of ordinary citizens to live in tolerable conditions with unpolluted water and air even though it's cheaper for industry to ignore the pollution they create.
Here's the mystery: With so much outrage against the hog industry, why has nobody called for a boycott of factory pork? It would be relatively easy to live without factory pork. Much easier than living without clean air and water -- or even gasoline or t-shirts.
Lots of cultures have kept pork out of their homes for generations. But in America, even people who know the facts order bacon with their eggs and sausage on their pizza. We forget that we're voting with our dollars for the kind of businesses we want.
What would a boycott mean to you? Simply put, you'd quit buying pork from grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. All the pork that comes from Wal-Mart, Kroger's, Safeway, McD's, Hardee's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Bob Evans, or any chain or franchise begins in a confinement operation.
If you, like me, depend on ham steaks, pork chops or sausage to make a quick meal, you'll find a family farmer to feed your habit. Every state still has one or two independent brands, but here's the trick. You have to ask where the hog was raised. Many good old reliable local ham processors are buying their pork from hog factories. These local ham champions and whole-hog grinders once kept farmers in business; now, many of them find it's cheaper to buy truckloads from the Big Boys.
To find a reliable farmer, look in the yellow pages under "Meat Locker" or "Meat Processing." Call the one that's closest to you. Ask them if they know of hog farmers who raise hogs from their own sows, or mother hogs, and sell to the public. Ask for the phone numbers.
Call the one that's closest to you. Ask them if their hogs are raised outside. Ask what their hogs are fed. Antibiotics? Hormones? Factory feeds? What do you want in your food?
If the farmer doesn't seem interested in talking to you, try another one. Every responsible, sustainable farmer I know is eager to connect with consumers and they'll talk your leg off. They might even invite you out to see their place. So, go.
Quit financing the operations that put family farms out of business. Vote with your dollars for the system you want -- today and tomorrow.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org