On buying ham

If, after reading about the ills of Smithfield, you opt not to support their farmer-crushing, poop-spreading ways, I’ve included a list of all the Smithfield brands. Since the mid-1980s, Smitfield has been very aggressive in buying their competitors, so their list of brands is substantial; I’m sure you’ll recognize several names.

Pork brands: Smithfield Packing Company, Smithfield Specialty Foods, Armour-Eckrich, Curly’s, Cumberland Gap Provision, Gwaltney, Lykes, Smitfield Premium, Peyton’s, Jamestown, Farmland, Cook’s Ham, Patrick Cudahy Inc., North Side Foods, Stefano Foods, Smithfield RMH Foods, Smithfield Innovation Group, Smithfield Foodservice, and Smithfield Deli.

Even better, you could stop by a local meat processor and pick up locally cured ham. Many processors have a retail side to their business, so stop in and ask. I’m cooking a ham from the half-hog we bought last winter and chilling it so we can have ham sandwiches this weekend.

An open letter to Miss Paula Deen

I watch the Food Network, I do. I like the basic shows best, the ones where people are just cooking, and I think Alton Brown is hilarious. I get a kick out of Paula Deen; she’s so outrageous, yet real. You get the idea that she could come over to your house and not bat an eye at the dog under the table or the dust on the mantle (if you have a mantle). She came from a blue-collar Georgia family, got married straight out of high school, had a messy marriage to an alcoholic and messier divorce, and raised her two sons as a single mom. I’ve read her biography, the gal has a stiff spine.

Which is why I have been disconcerted to see her as the spokesperson for Smithfield ham. Why, Miss Paula, why?

The Smithfield ham website touts its products as being “the flavor of Southern hospitality” and “the essence of Southern elegance.” The real story of Smithfield is a little less Gone with the Wind and little more The Jungle.

Smithfield has roots as a small packing plant founded in Smithfield, Virginia in 1936, but it doesn’t resemble that Rockwellian vignette anymore. The company slaughters 27 million hogs per year, making it the biggest hog producer and processor in the world. Rather than buying farmers’ hogs on the open market, Smithfield raises many of their own, and contracts most of the rest. Case in point, in the 1950s over 2 million farmers raised hogs; now that number has dropped to just over 78,000. While the number of hog farmers has dropped precipitously, the number of hogs has jumped. In 1988, the North Carolina hog population was 2.6 million; by 1997 it had risen to over 8 million. Also in North Carolina, Smithfield owns 274 hog farms and has contracts with another 1,200 farms to raise hogs exclusively for the company.

Raising all those hogs in concentrated areas introduces a host of problems since factory farms produce huge amounts of manure in addition to animals. This manure is held in sewage lagoons like cities use, but with much less regulation and oversight. Hogs produce more waste than humans; for example, a 2,500-head confinement in North Carolina produces 26 million gallons of liquid waste per year. Another confinement in Utah, holding an astounding half-million hogs, produces eight times more waste than Salt Lake City. Sometimes these lagoons leak or spill, such as a 2003 spill into North Carolina’s Neuse River, killing 4 million fish. Several other North Carolina rives have been the recipients of Smithfield’s waste, killing fish and contaminating the water for any other use.

In addition to how the hogs are raised, problems persist throughout the processing end of the business. Smithfield has perfected vertical integration, controlling every aspect of the hog business from farrowing to that cellophane-wrapped pork chop at the meat counter. The slaughterhouses are large, process thousands of hogs per day and aren’t known for taking care of their workers. Plant injuries abound, many going unreported and are thus denied worker’s compensation benefits.

Smithfield may have once represented Southern charm and hospitality, but now it reeks of manure and money. The company rakes in about $11 billion per year in sales, but those dollars are made at the expense of family farmers, independent processors, and the environment. It’s not an American success story; it’s an American travesty. I hope Miss Paula looks beyond Smithfield’s genteel front and into its dark underside; maybe she should take a drive downwind of one of those confinements. I’m pretty sure the smell wouldn’t be very charming.

Sources: Smithfieldhams.com; Food, Inc., editor Karl Weber, Participant Media, 2009; The Trouble with Smithfield: A Corporate Profile, Food & Water Watch, January 2008.

The Compassionate Carnivore

Carolyn Friend is a meat-eater and entirely unapologetic about that fact. When she started farming in southeastern Minnesota, she began to realize the immense difference between conditions on her farm and those factory farms where the animals lived who were destined for the grocery store meat case. The fact that her sheep and chickens lived normal animal lives, weren’t mistreated or pumped full of hormones and antibiotics starkly contrasted with the lives of the animals whose meat she purchased at the store. This niggled at her conscience, ate at her sense of animal-husbandry, and finally moved her to action. The entire book is written with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor and zero preachiness.

Friend breaks the book into parts that take you from an overview of factory meat production to steps people can take even if they don’t raise livestock. She also reviews the differences between “organic” and “sustainable,” explaining how the organic movement was hijacked by food industry, who recognized the huge growth potential. Yes, organic still means some important things like no hormones or antibiotics, but it doesn’t mean the animals of any species have enough room to move around, have access to the outdoors, and don’t have to lie in their own feces. Organic is a step up from convential, but Friend explains that if you want to be sure that the meat you buy comes from ethically treated animals, go to the source. Find a farmer or rancher; visit with him or her to see how the animals live, what they’re fed, etc. Not only does this take money away from the behemoth industry that feeds factory farming, it also keeps family farmers and ranchers on the land. As a country, we need farmers and ranchers, and buying directly from them puts more money in their pockets so they don’t disappear.

Friend’s passion about farming is contagious. She cares deeply about her livestock, her land and the future of farming (and food) in this country. If you’re queasy about buying that Smithfield ham at the grocery store (and you should be) but don’t know where to start, The Compassionate Carnivore will push you in the right direction.

How to get good chicken

Last week I wrote about local meat, and how I bought lamb from a friend. This week I bought chicken from that same friend; however, this meat wasn’t frozen, wrapped and carried in a cooler. Nope, it was clucking.

Between my mom and I, we had ordered 18 roasting chickens, and Monday morning was reckoning time. There were five hands on deck to help process them, my parents, my daughter, my cousin’s son from Portland, and me. Yep, the kid helps and our visiting relation (who is 14 like my daughter) also got initiated in ways of processing your own meat. Honestly, kids aren’t nearly as grossed-out by the experience as adults expect them to be. It helps to explain why we butcher our own chickens as opposed to buying what Tyson has provided in the grocery stores, and to explain how much cleaner home-processed meat is as opposed to that processed in industrial plants.

In that vein, I’ve been reading Everything I Want to Do is Illegal by Joel Salatin, and a study done by a grad student showed that chicken processed on-farm was 25 times cleaner than its  industrial-processed counterpart. So not only did I purchase organic chickens who get to live a normal chicken life during their time on Earth, I also took personal responsibility for making sure it was clean and safe to eat.

Some folks may doubt that you can tell the difference between a farm-raised roaster and a Tyson roaster, but one bite will convince them. After all, a farm bird actually tastes like chicken.

Local meat

Finding a source for local meat might be the biggest challenge for people who want to buy local or directly from a producer. Knowing farmers and ranchers helps, but that’s easier for folks like me who grew up on a cattle ranch and have friends/family who still raise livestock.

For example, each year we get half a beef from my parents. I know how that yearling lived, what it ate, and where it was processed. Also, we get half a hog from my brother’s friend over near Ft. Pierre, which is then processed in Kadoka. I won’t nitpick over whether or not that’s local; there is a direct connection with the producer, it all comes from South Dakota, and it’s a lot closer to home that pork produced by Smithfield, plus, it’s not CAFO pork. I get lamb and chickens from a good friend up near Lemmon. As for lamb, I just tell them how many packages of the cuts I want; the chickens are still clucking. We arrange a day, pick up the birds and then go back to my parents’ place to butcher them. I think it’s important to have the fortitude to harvest your own meat once in awhile if you eat it. The cellophaned cuts people buy at the store can serve to completely sever our connection with the animals that provide us food.

So I’m fortunate, I know enough people that I can bypass the likes of IBP and Tyson, but what about folks who don’t have those rural connections? Luckily, there are several options. First of all, check out Dakota Rural Action’s Local Foods Directory online at http://www.dakotarural.org/. It lists local food producers by region all across South Dakota. Next, look for meat producers the next time you’re at the farmers market. The Black Hills Farmers’ Market is open Saturdays in June and will be open Tuesdays and Thursdays as well starting in July, http://www.blackhillsfarmersmarket.com/. Another resource for finding local producers is Local Harvest at http://www.localharvest.org/; there are listings for producers who direct-market, CSA’s, and more. Also, ask for local meats at Good Earth Natural Foods in Spearfish and Breadroot Natural Foods Co-op in Rapid City.

If you know of other contacts for locally produced meat, or if you are a producer yourself, please comment.

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