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Smithfield's New Videos: An Entertaining -- but Fictitious -- Account of Pork Production

In response to a gruesome Humane Society of the United States undercover video at one of its pork farms a few months ago, as well as more generalized criticism of factory farming, Smithfield Foods (SFD) has produced a series of videos aimed at "taking the mystery out of pork production." Anyone hoping for a sober and honest account of what's involved in supplying the average American with 48 pounds of bacon and pork chops a year -- all at a mere $2 to $4 per pound -- won't find it in these videos.

Instead of actually mounting a defense of some of the uncomfortable realities of modern, large scale, industrial pig farming, Smithfield puts on its corporate rose-colored glasses, cuing up a chirpy, lilting female narrator to deliver a distorted, idealized version of pork production. The videos, which were shot at farms in North Carolina that are contracted with Smithfield's livestock subsidiary Murphy-Brown, glaze over controversial issues, fail to mention bad things, use misleading words like "organic" more than once and present beguiling half truths.

There are actually too many of these transgressions to parse out here, so I'll stick to the more egregious ones.

Sidestepping antibiotic use
One of the first Murphy Brown employees we're introduced to is veterinarian Mary Battrell. Cuddling a piglet as if it were her Yorkshire Terrier, she tries to address one of the more high profile criticisms of industrial agriculture -- the widespread antibiotic use on farms. "We do not use antibiotics for growth promoting purposes," she says in the intro video, only to "treat, prevent and control" disease.

The fact that this is the extent of Smithfield's comments on this thorny issue might leave viewers with the mistaken impression that farm workers run around with syringes giving antibiotics only to selected animals. In reality, most large, non USDA Organic operations douse their livestock with antibiotics through feed, which goes indiscriminately to all animals. They do this largely because in the crowded condition in which pigs live, universal antibiotic use is often necessary.

In another misleading announcement, Battrell happily reports that Smithfield doesn't use hormones to make its pigs grow faster. Why not? She doesn't say, but here's a good reason -- doing so would be illegal. The USDA only allows growth hormones to be administered to beef cattle.

Docked for docking
Another video called Nursery Farm shows images of adorably cute baby pigs but fails to mention why in one of the first sequences we see piglets with long, wiry tails and then later only stumps. The practice of chopping off a piglet's tail within the first two weeks of life is standard -- officially it's called "docking" -- and it's usually done without pain killers.

Tails are unacceptable because pigs, once they're packed tightly into indoor metal and concrete pens with no ability to indulge their natural instincts of rooting around in the dirt, exploring or otherwise engaging their active minds, turn to biting each others' tails.

Perhaps the most cynical moment comes when Smithfield tries to explain what it does with all the manure pigs generate. "Many folks unfamiliar with hog production may be surprised to know that we are big time organic recyclers," sings the narrator. She's right, we would! Just the use of the duplicitous phrase "organic recycler" is bad enough -- it's "organic" only because it came from a living thing.

Breathe deep -- that's manure. Really!
What's left out here is the fact that most hog farms, which now average 12,000 pigs, produce more manure than the surrounding crop land can absorb as fertilizer. Thus, some of it is simply sprayed into the air, causing, as you might image, all sorts of problems for the people unfortunate enough to live nearby.

Here's an image from an unidentified North Carolina farm taken by Steven Wing, a UNC professor, of pig shit being aerialized, if you look in the background. Oh, and in the foreground, that's sometimes what happens to pigs who die on the farm or who are deemed about to.

Smithfield's intro video comes to its conclusion at an outdoor pork chop grill-fest with a resident of Oak Island, NC declaring, "Murphy-Brown has provided wonderful community support." Presumably this woman isn't one of the people living in one of North Carolina's pig counties that, according to a recent study by Wing and others, have experienced breathing problems, eye irritation, sore throat and nausea as a result of inhaling "particles from dried feces", gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, and "endotoxin from dead bacteria."

Somewhere in between Humane Society exposes and slick agribusiness spin campaigns, there's room for a much-needed public discussion about whether cheap abundant meat is worth the environmental, animal welfare and public health costs that go along with it. But, if these videos are any guide, it doesn't appear that Smithfield is up to this challenge.
Image byFlickr user zhudandan

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