Thursday, April 30, 2009

Making Links

Pig farm run by Granjas Carroll/Smithfield in La Gloria, Mexico, showing typical pink "lagoon" filled with fecal matter; photo from Atisba por la Cerradura.

Making Links

Martha Grimes is a mystery writer whose books I eagerly wait to see published. Her standard set of characters are entertaining and interesting, but in each book she tends to have an incidental character who steals the show. Every now and then, she abandons her usual cast and writes an ordinary novel, almost always with a girl or young woman as the central focus. And when she writes these characters, she is at her best. They are complicated, ferocious, brilliant, and vivid.

In a past book, she created an incidental character named Andi Oliver who generated so much interest in fan mail that Grimes decided to bring her back as the main protagonist in her own book. Published in 2008, her novel Dakota follows Andi as she becomes a serious animal rights defender through covert work at a commercial pig farm. I read it last month, and was taken by surprise at how it slowly became a polemic about the horrific abuses common to massive corporate pork production. I didn't stop eating pork, but I decided to stop eating pork that came from such places.

Consequently, when the recent outbreak of a mutated strain of influenza was possibly linked to such an establishment, I wasn't at all surprised. Ground Zero of course has not yet been definitely established, but according to The Guardian, Granjas Carroll pig farm in La Gloria, Veracruz state, Mexico, generated enormous complaints of illness from inhabitants of the nearby village, one of whom, Edgar Hernández Hernández (age four), is reportedly the first documented case of this strain of influenza. Granjas Carroll Farms is co-owned (along with Agroindustrias Unidas de México) by US-based Smithfield Foods.

Smithfield is the largest pig farmer in the world and controls 26% of pork production in America. Without spoiling the book for you, it seems obvious to me that Grimes' model for the giant corporate offender she wrote about in Dakota includes the likes of Smithfield. This is borne out by the Rolling Stone article you've no doubt seen referenced at various progressive blogs the past week (including our own excellent Evan Robinson.) This article is well worth reading. It will help you understand, if you do not already, how cramming sentient beings for their lifetime into extremely filthy, unimaginably crowded quarters, forcing them into cannibalism and removing them from all natural exposure, makes them unable to survive except by injecting them continuously with antibiotics and other chemicals. The run-off from these farms tends to completely overwhelm the surrounding area. In such toxic offal, the emergence of a mutated superbug seems inevitable, almost as if that is what the corporate decision-makers had as an ultimate goal.

The chairman of Smithfield, Joseph W. Luter III, is a Republican about whom the Rolling Stone article states "In 1995, while Smithfield was trying to persuade the state of Virginia to reduce a large fine for the company's pollution, Joseph Luter gave $100,000 to then-governor George Allen's political-action committee." NNDB lists his affiliation with Friends of George Allan (a.k.a. Mr. Macaca), Santorum 2006, and the Good Government for America Committee.

To expand Smithfield into its dominant position, Rolling Stone reports "Luter wanted to create a system, known as 'total vertical integration,' in which Smithfield controls every stage of production, from the moment a hog is born until the day it passes through the slaughterhouse...The system made it impossible for small hog farmers to survive -- those who could not handle thousands and thousands of pigs were driven out of business. 'It was a simple matter of economic power,' says Eric Tabor, chief of staff for Iowa's attorney general."

A second means of increasing profit is to skimp on or outright defy environmental responsibility. Again from Rolling Stone, "According to the EPA, Smithfield's largest farm-slaughterhouse operation -- in Tar Heel, North Carolina -- dumps more toxic waste into the nation's water each year than all but three other industrial facilities in America. ... There simply is no regulatory solution to the millions of tons of searingly fetid, toxic effluvium that industrial hog farms discharge and aerosolize on a daily basis. Smithfield alone has sixteen operations in twelve states. Fixing the problem completely would bankrupt the company... From the moment that Smithfield attained its current size, its waste-disposal problem became conventionally insoluble."

Thus, the lower costs which enable Smithfield to control more and more share of the pork market arise from practices which I simply don't care to support. I'm poor, I survive on charity, and my food budget is inadequate. Even so, I choose to spend my food money so that my long-term health, and that of my descendants, is not compromised. I'm not a vegetarian; I'm a pork-eating Southerner, descended from crackers and rednecks, who is smarter than Smithfield apparently thinks we are.

The Smithfield Family Foods of Companies website reveals they own the following food providers in the United States, in addition to Smithfield:
Carroll's Foods
Cumberland Gap
John Morrell
North Side Foods
Patrick Cudahy's
Stefano Foods (which provides sausages for McDonald's)

Internationally, Smithfield owns:

Smithfield's hog production subsidiaries, American and international, include:
Granjas Carroll de Mexico
Premium Standard Farms
Smithfield Ferme

Boycotting or banning pork will do nothing to stop the spread of this flu because it is not transmitted by eating pork. Further, the economic damage caused by a plummet in pork sales would hurt SMALL farmers, including clean growers. Corporate near-monopolies would ride out a boycott and emerge with more control than ever. Poor people are not going to stop eating pork, folks. But we can choose to buy it from clean producers.

There's a website available to locate organic pork, often called Niche Pork. The USDA offers a farmer's market search engine for specific criteria such as location or if they take WIC vouchers. Local Harvest also has an excellent farmer's market locator, with means to find Community Supported Agriculture, farms, restaurants, and grocery stores, with an interactive map.

A quick Google search also turned up the following organic pork purveyors:
Angera Pork Products
Applegate Farms
Jolie Vue Farms
Llano Seco
My Rancher
Organic Prairie
Tide Mill Organic Farm
Wholesome Harvest

Lastly, if you do seek positive change via consumer choice, your power is vastly multiplied when you make sure grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses know what you are doing. Vocalize, write letters, and spread the word. And, as always, share your successes and insights here.

(Hat-tip to Tristero at Hullaballoo and to My DD for excellent coverage of this issue.)