A week ago I wrote about the dangers and injustices that slaughterhouse workers face. Now I'd like to take you inside the largest meat-processing plant in the world.
Smithfield Packing is located in Tar Heel, N.C. The company is the world's largest pork producer and the country's largest turkey producer. The plant opened in 1992, and since 1994 workers have been trying to unionize. That year workers accused management of "harassment, illegal surveillance, intimidation, threats, and coercion" to defeat the measure.
In 2000 an administrative law judge with the National Labor Relations Board found "Smithfield liable of using illegal threats, intimidation, and violence against workers" in a second effort to quash a vote to unionize, in 1997. That same year the slaughterhouse became the country's first to have its own company police force. The officers were even allowed to carry guns. Five years later, after public pressure, the force was disbanded.
Workers want a union, in part, to improve working conditions.
All slaughterhouse officials keep "disassembly" lines moving as fast as possible -- to the detriment of the animals and the workers -- to make as much money as possible. They don't care about the animals who are often stuck in their eyes, noses and anuses with electric prods; carried with forklifts; and torn from the sides of trucks after they've frozen to them.
Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth.So I was surprised to read a former Smithfield worker's views about the company: "They cherish the hogs, but they don't cherish the humans."
The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Enormous exhaust fans run twenty-four hours a day. The ventilation systems function like the ventilators of terminal patients: If they break down for any length of time, pigs start dying.
A year ago pigs trampled over Roscoe Bell's body, and now he's in constant agony. "I'd rather be dead than to bear this pain day after day."
Another Smithfield worker was ultimately fired because of his injuries.
During his first few months he kept getting hurt, until after eight months he tore the cartilage in his right knee, slipped and fell on a blade and slashed his arm and hand through the tendons.In addition to treating workers and animals poorly, Smithfield does a number on the environment. A Rolling Stone story from 2006 said, "Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield's business model."
The emergency room doctors and his personal physician said the injury was due to his job, but Smithfield denied him worker’s compensation. He had to take unpaid leave to have two surgeries. His leave time ran out before a third scheduled operation and the company fired him.
The company keeps its animal waste in lagoons, allowing it to get into groundwater and river systems.
The drugs Smithfield administers to its pigs [antibiotics and vaccines], of course, exit its hog houses in pig shit. Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.And the FDA wonders how produce can get contaminated with E. coli.
Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.
Nevertheless in June 2008 the American Meat Institute, a meat-industry trade organization, gave 54 Smithfield facilities environmental awards. The Tar Heel plant was among them.
"At each and every one of our facilities, our employees understand that environmental stewardship is a critical part of our daily jobs," [said C. Larry Pope, Smithfield Foods' president and chief executive officer]. "That's why Smithfield Foods continues to be a food industry leader in protecting the environment. The credit goes to our employees."