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The Planet

Why Did the Polish Pig Farmer Cross the Ocean?

by Jenny Coyle

Smithfield Foods, Inc., the largest producer of hogs in the United States, acquired a major share of Poland's leading pork producer, Animex, in April.

When Smithfield officials announced their intention to "Americanize" Polish pork production, a 10-member delegation of Polish farm leaders, ecologists, animal rights activists and reporters high-tailed it here to find out exactly what that meant.

They were stunned by what they saw. One of them went so far as to call the animal-factory operations "concentration camps" for hogs. They vowed to block Smithfield from getting established in Poland.

"They came here expecting to find that we had effective laws in place to keep everything under control. They were shocked to learn that we have very little under control when it comes to this industry," said Chris Bedford, chair of the Maryland Chapter, which helped the Animal Welfare Institute host the delegation. "Their visit provided us with a mirror where we could see ourselves and how desperate our situation is. The U.S. farmers told them to 'learn from our mistakes. We should never have let them build.'"

For 10 days in September the Polish visitors toured five states impacted by hog factory production, including North Carolina and Virginia, where numerous Smithfield slaughterhouses and animal factories are located.

While viewing the startling conditions firsthand, they learned that Smithfield and its subsidiaries have a long record of environmental, health and humane-slaughter violations. In 1997, the company was slapped with the largest fine ever imposed under the Clean Water Act ($12.6 million) for polluting the Pagan River in Virginia. A Smithfield slaughterhouse in North Dakota also set a dubious record, earning the highest fine for safety violations ever levied under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. And spills from Smithfield hog factories in North Carolina have been implicated in the outbreak of pfiesteria, a toxic organism that has killed millions of fish in the state's rivers and bays.

"We can't believe this happened in America," the Poles told Scott Dye, agriculture coordinator for the Club's Ozark Chapter in Missouri.

"Frankly, neither can we," Dye replied.

The visitors learned enough to be alarmed by a statement from Smithfield CEO Joe Luter, issued in an April press release: "We believe the strategies and practices we have followed in the United States will work equally well, or perhaps even better, in Poland and Europe."

Of the nearly 40 percent of Poles who live in the countryside, 25 percent work on farms. The average Polish farm is small -- about 15 acres. Compare that to a Premium Standard Farms hog factory the group saw in Missouri: The facility comprises 19 pods (each pod with its own four-acre lagoon) of eight buildings each, with 1,104 hogs in each building for a grand total of 167,808 hogs.

During their visit, the Poles viewed hog factory operations from the air and on foot, getting a close-up view of the animals' living quarters.

Sierra Club Trade Specialist Dan Seligman and other experts strategized with the delegation about ways to fight the globalization of the factory-farm industry. The group also met with union leaders, water scientists and politicians.

In Washington, D.C., they joined a family-farm demonstration at the capitol along with 500 American farmers, and with the Club's Virginia Chapter and the Southside Coalition -- a citizens' hog-watch group -- they took part in a demonstration at Smithfield's headquarters.

From the East Coast, members of the delegation flew to the nation's Heartland. On one of their last nights they gathered with about 50 farmers in a barn on Sierra Club member Terry Spence's farm in northern Missouri. The U.S. farmers implored them to do whatever it takes to prevent Smithfield from setting up shop in Poland.

Interestingly, said Dye, the Poles talked about how, twice this year, tens of thousands of farmers plunged the country into political crisis when they blockaded over 600 roads, border crossings and railroads around the country to protest depressed prices and cheap agricultural imports from abroad.

"Exactly how does one organize a blockade?" the American farmers asked.

"It's a tactic that hasn't been tried in this country lately," said Dye. "The Sierra Club opposes even non-violent civil disobedience, but the way this hog-factory industry is going, the American farmers might be tempted to try it. We've been failed by our politicians and our regulators, and now it's gone to the judicial system. If that fails, we may see the public take it upon itself to stop the devastation any way it can."

The day after the meeting in Terry Spence's barn, Dye stood before the state's Clean Water Commission and explained that the Polish delegation had flown halfway around the world and then halfway across the country to Missouri because members wanted to see the worst example of a corporate hog factory.

"That should be a source of shame and humiliation for everyone in this room," said Dye.

No one said a word.


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