Back in 1998 Rolling Stone published the first of several articles by Eric Schlosser that would become the 2001 nonfiction bestseller Fast Food Nation. The magazine's Dec. 14, 2006 issue, the one with Snoop Dogg on the cover, has a riveting feature — titled "Boss Hog" and detailing Smithfield Foods' hog-farming operations — that deserves to be ranked with Schlosser's in the annals of excellent food-chain investigative journalism.
Read it. Just don't do so while eating.
Reporter Jeff Tietz focuses not on the treatment of factory pigs, although the horrifying photo that ran with the online version might turn animal-loving readers away. No, he dispenses with the animals' unimaginably squalid plight in a few terse paragraphs.
(Photo is by Rick Dove, the activist and photojournalist interviewed by Tietz for the article. See his website Dove Imaging for more depressing pictures of North Carolina hog farms at work.)
The main thrust of the article is how the manure from porcine CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations, is an unprecedented ecological disaster for North Carolina and other hog-harboring states, causing severe health problems for nearby residents, poisoning streams and groundwater, decimating fish life, and turning surrounding farmland into a toxic-waste dump.
And that Smithfield, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world, doesn't give a shit — pig or otherwise.
Smithfield killed and processed 27 million hogs last year. As Tietz says in the introduction, since a slaughter-weight hog weighs 50% more than a person, that's "roughly equivalent to butchering and boxing the entire human populations" of 32 major U.S. cities, including New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Only pigs produce three times as much waste as people — a rough estimate puts Smithfield's output at 26 million tons.
That waste is so full of antibiotics, ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals that it is "hardly even pig shit," writes Tietz. "On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure."
In an article chock full of hair-raising facts and statistics, a few still manage to stand out. Seen from the air, according to Tietz, the liquid in the manure "lagoons" is not brown. It is a Pepto-Bismol pink, thanks to the combination of bacteria, blood, afterbirths, stillborn piglets, urine, excrement, chemicals, and drugs.
I found this so horrifying that I went on Google Earth to see if it was true. Several pink, obviously man-made "lakes" can indeed be seen dotting the I-40 corridor next to large rectangular buildings, the CAFO calling card; I don't know if the one pictured belongs to Smithfield or not.
Those "lagoons" have a habit of leaking, breaking, or getting picked up and dumped all over the Eastern Seaboard by hurricanes.
Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one…In North Carolina alone [its lagoons] 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.
On a side note, CEO Joseph Luter sounds like perhaps one of the most vile corporate sociopaths ever to walk this earth. Not content with having destroyed much of North Carolina, he's also intending to take the Smithfield environmental horrorshow on the road to countries where there are fewer pesky regulatory agencies and environmentalists.
Visiting Smithfield's website after reading "Boss Hog" is a prime example of "truthiness." It is larded with references to the company's environmental stewardship and humane animal treatment. I kept imagining the odor of animal excrement gusting through my browser window ... a scent more bovine in nature.
As my fondest dream — that Smithfield and other hog-industry executives should be dropped into the middle of their own manure lagoons, followed by CAFOs being banned entirely — is unlikely to be realized, in the meantime I solemnly vow never to eat another Smithfield product. If, after reading this article, anyone wants to join me, the company's over 50 brands include: John Morrell, Patrick Cudahy, Stefano Foods, Cooks ham, Cumberland Gap, Guraltney, Butterball, Animex, Constar, Carando, Yano Family, Farmland, Krakus, and Dinner Bell.
However, given the state of the hog industry, the most ethical decision might be just to never eat ham, bacon, or any pork of unknown provenance again.