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.