A nursing sow at a factory hog farm in North Carolina. photo by Sally Kneidel
I got a call Wednesday morning from a reporter in Europe who's doing a story about the connection between Smithfield's hog operations in the Mexican town of Perote (in the state of Veracruz) and the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico. The Perote factory farm, operated under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carroll, raises 950,000 hogs per year, according to Smithfield's corporate website.
I had heard the connection between Smithfield and the recent outbreak of swine flu mentioned on the Jim Lehrer News Hour both Monday and Tuesday (April 27, 28) but I haven't seen the connection in a U.S. print media yet. Mexican newspapers are definitely blaming Smithfield, papers such as this one in Vera Cruz and this one in Mexico City.
The reporter who called me said he'd heard that I had been inside a Smithfield factory farm here in North Carolina where I live (true) and wanted to know what it was like. So I told him. I've talked about that visit on this blog before and will later again later this week.
As you probably know, this new H1N1 "swine flu" strain—a virus with recombined pieces of swine, avian, and human viruses—is suspected of infecting 2,498 people in Mexico and killing 168. For an unknown reason, the infections in Mexico have caused more serious disease than infections in the U.S. or elsewhere. As of Thursday morning (April 30), 93 confirmed cases have occurred in the U.S., but only one death. The World Health Organization and other sources have warned that the outbreak could reach global pandemic levels....or could fizzle out.
I was not surprised when I first heard that Smithfield Foods might be involved in the swine flu situation. After researching our books Veggie Revolution and Going Green, both of which are in part about factory farms, I know something about how Smithfield operates, about their priorities.
Smithfield is the world’s largest hog producer. The corporation operates the world's largest hog-processing plant (slaughtering and packaging) on the bank of North Carolina's Cape Fear River, in the tiny town of Tar Heel, NC. The workers in the plant slaughter more than 32,000 hogs every day. NC has more hogs than any other state, except Iowa, most of which are raised by huge factory farms under contract to Smithfield on the low-income coastal plain of NC.
Why North Carolina? Land is cheap. Our climate is moderate, so the hog-confinement sheds require modest heating bills and cooling bills, if any. Our environmental regulations are slack; enforcement is sporadic. So when those 10-acre hog-waste lagoons spill or rupture, no one pays much attention to the brown slime oozing downhill to the nearest surface waters. No one except the neighbors.
But most inviting of all to Smithfield and other meatpackers, North Carolina is the least unionized state in the United States. Labor is cheap! The rapid influx of immigrants from Mexico has made the situation even sweeter for employers such as the Smithfield Corporation, whose only consideration is shaving pennies off of production costs. This allows them to offer the cheapest cuts of meat, to outcompete other meatpackers and secure the business of high-volume retailers such as Wal-Mart. Which maximizes profits for Smithfield's shareholders. That's what it's all about. The shareholders.
Latin American immigrants are desirable employees because they don't complain about the extremely dangerous production line down in Tar Heel, where income is measured by carcasses and cuts per minute. Undocumented immigrants are the most attractive employees of all - if they complain or lose a finger or cripple a hand, a threat of deportation or firing will silence the complaint right quick. To read interviews with Smithfield and Tyson workers in North Carolina, check out the excellent research document by Human Rights Watch entitled Blood, Sweat, and Fear. You can find different copies of it by googling the name of the document.
As I mentioned to the reporter who called yesterday, I suspect that the swine raised by Smithfield in Vera Cruz are in sheds that have open sides. Mexico is hot. If the sheds didn't have open sides, they'd have to be air-conditioned. I've seen hog sheds on factory farms here in NC with 40,000 hogs crammed neck and neck, the sows in spaces too tight to even turn around or stretch or groom themselves. Those closed metal sheds would get very hot with a tropical or subtropical sun beating down. I know that poultry factory farms in tropical countries such as Viet Nam have open sides to save money on cooling costs. Here in NC, with a less extreme climate, animals can survive in sheds that are sealed and windowless, safe from public scrutiny. A few exhaust fans will create an adequate breeze for cooling in summer.
I'm betting it turns out that the sheds in Veracruz are open on the sides and that hogs and chickens are raised on the same property (as is often the case on Smithfield farms in the Southeast that we visited). If the sheds in Veracruz are open-sided, wild birds can fly back and forth between the chicken and hog sheds, eating the chow that falls on the floor, leaving their virus-laden droppings to be munched, and carrying viruses back and forth between the sheds, allowing a jumble of bird and pig viruses to mutate in the pigs into a virus that can infect humans. Pigs are more likely to brew and harbor a new virus that can infect humans, because as mammals, they are more closely related to us than birds are.
But we'll see. Maybe it'll turn out that Smithfield isn't involved at all. Or maybe the corporate-dominated U.S. media will downplay any involvement. Either way, I'm interested in seeing how it develops. And I'm hoping very much that the swine flu peaks soon and then fizzles into oblivion.