RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Corporate Hogs Throw Their Weight Around

The Wall Street Journal is as funny as The Onion, when held up to a certain light. Take for example, the op-ed on July 27 by C. Larry Pope, president and CEO of giant hog packer Smithfield Foods, Inc. Pope is lobbing epithets at the ethanol industry and pretending to care about consumers. Ethanol, he says, is worse than drought when it comes to driving up consumer prices.

Pope wants the corn to go to giant confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) run by Smithfield, owner of over a million sows (mother hogs) and exporter of pork. Just last year, the hog industry was lobbying to expand St. Louis airport and build more warehouses so that even more pork could be exported from the Midwest. “Aerotropolis” thankfully died, but not until Missouri’s governor held the most expensive special legislative session in history.

Corporations don’t need to be so big that they control the government, and that goes for ethanol producers as well as hog producers. In fact, just a few days before Pope’s words appeared, I had been visiting a young Nebraskan with 20 brown hogs of a nearly extinct breed wallowing in pasture. She has learned to raise them, and how to negotiate the complex system of locker plants and inspected kitchens so that she can deliver the end product, a particular kind of sausage, to restaurants.

Despite the 100-degree heat, her hogs were fat and happy, plump with home-grown feed, turnips in the field, spent grain from a brewery and whey from a cheesemaker. That’s how hogs were raised a few decades ago, and it’s how they should be raised now.

Until the 1970s, raising hogs had been so profitable that a herd of ten or twenty sows was nicknamed “the mortgage lifters.” But when industry started packing thousands of hogs in buildings, farmers with average herds were eliminated. Their markets disappeared. So, in just one year, 1994-1995, Missouri lost 19% of its hog farms, Iowa and Minnesota lost 14% and Illinois lost 13%. Many old breeds of hog became endangered.

Pope’s thesis blames the government for requiring that a certain volume of ethanol is blended into gasoline. “We can’t control the drought,” says Pope, “But we can and must address the impact of politics on corn supplies and prices ...”

While I’m no defender of ethanol, and in fact I go out of my way to find gas stations that sell ethanol-free gasoline, please note that corn producers learned how to manipulate Congress by watching the hog producers chip away at farmer rights. There had been longstanding laws and traditions that kept butchers like Smithfield from owning hogs. These laws protected farmers and kept competition alive in the marketplace.

In 2003, a federal judge in Des Moines ruled in favor of Smithfield by striking down a 1975 Iowa law preventing processors from owning hogs, saying the state law violated the US Constitution. There were 15.3 million hogs on Iowa CAFOs in 2003, or about one-quarter of the US swine inventory, and Iowa packing plants slaughtered more than one-quarter of the hogs in the United States. The same year, a judge in North Dakota ruled against farmers in a similar case.

These rulings follow decades of manipulation and lobbying by the pork producers. But the judges ignore health and environmental warnings. According to the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, “There is now an extensive literature documenting acute and chronic respiratory diseases and dysfunction among workers, especially swine and poultry workers, from exposures to complex mixtures of particulates, gases and vapors …”

Studies in North Carolina confirmed that the gases cause symptoms such as depression, confusion, headache, sore throat, burning eyes and “reduced quality of life.” The American Public Health Association called for a moratorium on new animal feeding operations because the facilities produce pathogens “capable of causing severe gastrointestinal disease, complications, and sometimes death in humans,” “contribute to antibiotic resistance transmitted to humans,” produce waste that include “organic dust, molds, bacterial endotoxins and manure-generated gases of up to 400 separate volatile compounds such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide.”

And, swine flu, or H1N1. According to the Washington Post, in 2006, a team of Iowa researchers took blood from 111 hog farmers, 65 veterinarians and 97 meat-processing workers, and compared them with university employees and students who had no contact with pigs. The scientists looked for antibodies to two common swine influenza viruses. They found that 17 to 20 percent of farmers and 11 to 19 percent of veterinarians had evidence of previous infection by the two strains. None of the students did. And those who had picked up swine flu from hogs had passed it on. “The same research team found that the wives of half of infected pig farmers had the antibodies — suggesting that person-to-person transmission of the viruses was possible.”

So, while the accusations of the Smithfield CEO are comical, the reality is serious. Jobs, health, environment are all at stake. If you want to support farmers, seek out one who, like the farmer in Nebraska, is raising hogs with real consumer interest in mind.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2012

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