Smithfield's Cities of Pigs
by Luis Hernández Navarro
Mexico City, Mexico
Smithfield, the giant agribusiness pork producer is one of the biggest corporations in the world. According to Fortune magazine, in 2008, it was number 222 among the 500 most important companies in the United States. It’s the third most powerful food products company, after Archer Daniels Midland and Tyson Foods.
But its impressive economic growth is facing a grave problem: increasingly more strict environmental and labor regulations, and the fines for violating them. Smithfield has been repeatedly accused of contaminating water, soil and air, and of not respecting the human rights of its workers. In its report Blood, Sweat and Fear, published in 2005, Human Rights Watch fully documented the abuses committed by this company.
To evade these regulations, Smithfield has moved part of its operations to countries in which environmental protection laws are more lax, and where politicians are more disposed to help the company. That is how they have come to build pork production plants in Mexico, Romania and Poland.
Smithfield farms are truly cities of pigs, surrounded by seas of excrement and waste, which grow in the shadow of weak environmental regulations and permissive authorities. In them, the hogs are fattened until they reach 120 kilograms (264 pounds) in record time: barely 300 days. The animals live in cages which restrict their movement, in poorly ventilated warehouses, with constant lighting to stimulate growth.
In Poland and Romania, Smithfield has brought ruin to thousands of small farmers. In Romania, according to the New York Times (06/05/2009), the number of hog breeders has declined 90 percent, while in Poland they have been reduced 56 percent, which, to top it all, exports pork chops to Africa at very low low prices causing the bankruptcy of peasants in nations like Cote D’Ivoire. Smithfield gets millions of euros in economic subsidies from the European Union.
In 2007, around 67,000 of these pigs died or were killed as a result of swine fever inside the company’s operations in Romania. Two of the plants were operating without permits, their managers did not adequately report on the animals’ deaths and their employees moved freely between different farms without taking security measures. Scientists have found signs of this swine virus (one in Europe or Asia, another in North America) in the genetic code of the current A/H1N1 influenza.
Taking advantage of the Free Trade Treaty (NAFTA), Smithfield established itself in Mexico and, in 1994, founded Granjas Carroll in (the Mexican states of) Veracruz and Puebla. In 1999, they set up Norson in the state of Sonora.
Contrary to what is claimed, this company sends the bulk of this herd to the national market. Since 2000, 6,400,000 pigs have been fattened-up. Of these, 5,120,000 were sent to the Valley of Mexico for slaughter and consumption in Mexico City and the (neighboring) state of Mexico. The rest were sent to Veracruz and the Yucatan peninsula.
Just as in the eastern European countries where Smithfield operates, the environmental and public health problems generated by these pig cities, and the ease of association with important local politicians, have been evident in the case of Granjas Carroll.
The government of Fidel Herrera, in Veracruz, and the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) have used this company to promote social projects made possible by donations from this transnational. Simultaneously, federal authorities have dedicated themselves to covering for this company.
The pollution brought on by Granjas Carroll and its impact on the health of the people in the communities adjacent to the hog production centers, such as the lagoons of animal waste, has led, since 2004, to the rise of a regional environmental movement. The company has responded by repressing it.
Beginning in 2005, the people of La Gloria and Xaltepec, who comprise more than ten communities, united to protest the expansion of Carroll by means of a petition. They held meetings and marches. On April 26, 2005, the inhabitants of Totalco held their first march against this transnational. Veronica Hernandez Argüello, a secondary school teacher, wrote a communiqué which was read on local radio, calling on people to defend the environment. Smithfield sued her for defamation, just as they had done with other neighbors (of their plants). In total, they have legal proceedings against eight environmentalists. Three of them, Veronica included, were detained and obliged to pay bail of 8,000 pesos to get out of jail.
The residents of Achichica, Guadalupe Buenavista, Quechulac, Guadalupe Victoria, San Luis Atexpac, Portes Gil, San Pedro el Águila, Techachalco, Achichica, Iztoten, La Gloria and Xaltepec, all communities adjacent to the Granjas Carroll pig cities, have lived for fourteen years with the fear of pollution. Day and night they breathe in an infernal stink. Dust storms spread the stench for miles around. They believe that their respiratory illnesses are due to the company’s plants.
The influenza epidemic exists. It is not a scheme to enrich Donald Rumsfeld by stimulating sales of Tamiflu, or a plot to deprive us of our democratic freedoms, no matter how much the pharmaceutical companies’ profits have increased and that the (Mexican) government has responded to the crisis in an authoritarian manner and with lies.
The sickness is a real thing which has emerged, according to various scientific studies, out of the industrial mode of pork production practiced by Smithfield, and which comes on top of the crisis created by neoliberal devastation in both our public health system and our scientific research; and the erosion of our immunilogical system brought about by human overcrowding and our models of consumption. It is better to understand this before it is too late.
Luis Hernández Navarro is the Opinion page editor and a columnist for La Jornada. This article originally published (in Spanish) in La Jornada.
Published in In Motion Magazine May 23, 2009
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