The U.S. premiere of the documentary film Pig Business played to a full house at the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center on March 9th. The event was sponsored by the Center for Food Safety and co-sponsored by Slow Food DC and about a dozen other food and environmental advocacy groups.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is featured in the documentary, kicked off the event with a powerful speech. Also putting in appearances at the event were Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who served as master-of-ceremonies and panel moderator; Tracy Worchester, the film’s director; and Dr. Michael Greger, Humane Society of the United States, Andrew Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety, and Kathy Ozer (National Family Farm Coalition, all of whom spoke as part of a panel after the screening.
The documentary focuses primarily on the brass-knuckles business practices of Virginia-based Smithfield Farms, which is coming close to monopolizing pork production in both the United States and Europe. The film details how pork producers are going down the same sorry, ruinous trail carved out years ago by chicken processors.
Smithfield and other pork producers employ what are termed “industrial farming methods,” but this is a far too gentle and antiseptic term for what actually occurs. The pigs are continuously confined and subject to abuse, a situation graphically displayed in the film. These scenes provoked one of the event’s panelists to recall Ghandi’s words that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” By this standard, our collective mortal souls here in the U.S. are all in some considerable peril.
Industrial farming would clearly be on shaky moral ground if the treatment of the animals were the only problem. Unfortunately, for all of us, this is only the beginning of the litany of abuses these methods entail:
- The concentration of some many animals, each of whom produces daily ten times the amount of waste a human does, in the small confinement areas results in horrendous environmental damage to our waterways and lands and ultimately poses a threat to human health and safety. This danger is epitomized by a nauseating stench that sickens people for miles around these confinement facilities.
- Rural communities are being emptied out and a way of life destroyed along with the individual farmer’s ability to compete in the face of monopoly power. Smithfield and other producers offer a few farmers a contract where they raise pigs in these specially-designed confinement facilities for a set price. The price is so low that other farmers can’t possibly match it when raising animals using humane and environmentally-sound animal husbandry practices. It is estimated that in one region of North Carolina, only 2,000 pig farmers remain in an area that once supported over 20,000.
- The abuse extends to the exploitation of workers at the pork processing plants who suffer numerous serious injuries, such as the loss of fingers and hands. This comes from working with super-sharp knives on “disassembly” lines moving at stressfully high speeds in extremely hot or extremely cold conditions. These workers are often undocumented and thus unwilling to come forward publically with complaints or join a union to seek better working conditions.
- The high food-safety risks coming from these plants where workers, operating under these constant “speed-up” line pressures, are sometimes unable to completely and thoroughly remove fecal matter that can contaminate meat.
Of course, consumers rarely see or understand these problems. What they do see are the pork products packaged in convenient, uniform cuts and are “cheap” when considering only the price per pound and not the other externalized costs of meat raised and processed this way.
As Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., stated passionately, Smithfield is able to get away with all this because it systematically break laws, including anti-trust, environmental, worker protection, and food safety to name the major forms of laws. The law breaking started with the corruption of the state government in North Carolina. With this foothold, the company forced down the price of pork nationally, making other major pork-producing states like Iowa get in line – or else. Smithfield has followed a similar strategy in Europe, starting with Poland.
Pig Business speaks directly to the concerns of the Slow Food movement. As the movement philosophy states, we need to see ourselves as “co-producers — an eater who is informed about where and how their food is produced and actively supports local producers, therefore becoming part of the production process.”
The premiere also represented the first formal effort of Slow Food DC’s policy, advocacy and outreach committee to represent our organization and be a voice for our values in the community. Committee members in attendance were Patrick Parnell, committee chair, along with Julianne Tootel, and myself (William “Bud” Wurtz). If you want to stand up for Slow Food values in a way that makes a difference, please consider joining with us.