Deep shit: Rolling Stone reporter reams Smithfield Foods for environmental crimes

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.

smithfieldhogs.jpgReporter 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.

hog_lake.jpgThat 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.

[Thanks to Jack for the heads-up; we had missed Edible Nation's post on the article, which also touts my upcoming Edible San Francisco article on the opposite sort of pig farm.]

14 Responsesto “Deep shit: Rolling Stone reporter reams Smithfield Foods for environmental crimes”

  1. ‘Animex’? That is the least appetizing food brand name I’ve ever heard. Regardless, count me among the boycotters, though I think Butterball is the only one I’ve consumed in any recent year. Fantastic post, my friend!

  2. kevin shilling says:

    Don’t come to iowa! Up here hogs have more rights than people. Our state controls when and where they can be built (hogconfinements). The authority is with the STATE not the local residents or community. Packers say they test for drugs before slaughter-and Santa brought you your presents too! Iowa will make North Carolina look a paradise. All of the companies from NC are up here now expanding their operations. If you want to lose the investment in a home-come to Iowa. Hogs first, it is the backbone of Iowa economy…not these worthless humans. Kevin

  3. DairyQueen says:

    Now now Kevin, don’t blame the poor hogs. It’s the meatpacking corporations like Cargill and Smithfield that enjoy more rights than the nice taxpaying people of Iowa and elsewhere. Maybe I’m naive, but it astounds me that any state government could look the other way — let alone encourage – these companies to rape and pillage the communities in which they operate, all in the name of profits. I don’t know why there haven’t been class-action lawsuits by Iowa, NC, and other CAFO-state residents for the damage these companies do under the bloodless rubric of “externalities.” It’s shameful…and it obviously makes you as angry as it does me. Let’s do something about it.

  4. kiplog says:

    Smithfield not only treats their pigs and environment badly – there’s more and more reports of its terrible working conditions for humans.

    This union article ( tell us that its Bladen Co. plant has 5,000 workers with a 100% annual turnover.

  5. Pops says:

    Wow – incredible post Dairy Queen!
    It’s amazing to see the amount of environmental and animal abuse that takes place during the process of creating the unhealthy products we consume. It makes one “see the light” in the preference of dealing with local farmers. Thanks to you Ethicurean Bloggers for your continuing, enlightening, information!

  6. Josh says:

    Why is it that corporations are allowed to pay fines as penalties for crimes that, if they were committed by an individual, would result in jail time? If we’re going to have a legal framework for corporate personhood, that framework should include jail time (suspension of corporate charter and operations?) and the death penalty (charter revoked, assets seized?), the same as it does for human persons.

    Thank you for posting this; it’s prompted me to write my own post and change my behavior.

  7. jacqueline says:

    Eegads. I think that Smithfield is the one Paula Deen just joined up with for marketing? Just checked her website and it says Smithfield is Paula Deen approved!

    Perhaps a letter-writing campaign to Ms Deen about her chosen sponsor’s practices would be in order?
    - Jacqueline Church AKA The Leather District Gourmet;
    gourmet food,

  8. VQA says:

    Well, if any of you have ever read the Bible you have perhaps read where God told the people what things to eat and what not to.”clean and unclean”. Swine, which is hogs is listed as an unclean meat. We are not suppose to eat them. He didn’t make those rules for nothing. God knows hog meat is not good for you. So now people have disregarded those rules and let greed control them,and you see what it is doing to our land. This land is cursed until the truth is told, that hogs are no good for people to eat, and get it off the market. If this is not done then good land and good water are gone from wherever hogs reside. Those made rich from hog farming could care less, because they can afford to move away. They have sold our health for hog money.

  9. DairyQueen says:

    Hi VQA: I am an atheist, and I have read enough of the Bible to know that it’s an interesting historical document, but I would no more take dietary advice from it than I would marital. However, like you, I do believe in right and wrong, and in the importance of caring for the land. The earth belongs to all of us, and we should not let others wreck it in pursuit of profit or anything else. Sometimes I do wish I believed in hell — certain things (and people) would be so much easier to bear.

    Anyway, I realize we may have many differences, but I see that you are writing from or near Jacksonville, NC, where I was born (in the Camp Lejeune hospital). So we have at least one thing in common, along with the desire not to support Smithfield products.

    Thank you for stopping by.

  10. DairyQueen says:

    Hi VQA: I have removed your last comment due to its incredible length, many misleading claims — pigs do have livers, after all, that filter toxins just like humans’ do — but mainly because you lifted the whole thing from another website, (if anyone is interested). Please refrain from using the comments section for anything other than discussing the post.

  11. jacqueline says:

    Hey DQ
    You are better than a dip cone, and better for me, too. I tell the world in my latest post.

    Wanted to update you on my progress or lack thereof with the Paual Deen folks. I’ve gotten long missives from “Cassie” who keeps missing the point. When I last responded, I asked (even more) directly for my request to be passed on to a publicist and included links to your post, to the original Rolling Stone piece, etc.

    I would love to see Paula back off her endorsement. Sometimes I get like a terrier on the other end of knotted up sock…I think this is turning into one of those times!

    Rock on,
    aka The Leather District Gourmet

  12. Pura Vida says:

    I would like to say a big THANKS to the reporter of Boss Hogs; I live in North Carolina and reading this was an eye-opening experience. Having such contaminated environment in our back yards is insane….and my heart goes out to all those workers and inhabitants of Tar Heel….but mostly, my stomach aches to know people buy Smithfield products….I was never informed about this; but now that I read about it and investigated further, I will make sure my children and my friends stay away from Smithfield products.

  13. Gan says:

    The hogs should not be farmed in the first place. But I heard they are as smart as dogs so perhaps they can be used to curb drug smuggling instead. For sure hogs should be regarded like dogs and should not be eaten.

  14. sudsy says:

    Thanks, DQ for your pulling the lifted comment you referenced in post no.10. I did not come here to be saved. I appreciate this wonderful article, and more so, your diligence on keeping the posts on track.