Smithfield Foods: Sustainable pork?

Unless you avoid pork for religious reasons, you’ve probably eaten pork products from Smithfield Foods: the bacon or sausage in a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, Armour-Eckrich bologna or ham, pork from Bob Evans or Jimmy Dean’s, an Esskay hot dog at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and quite likely your Easter ham.

Smithfield is a pork giant. It has 49 factories, 500 or so hog farms, 48,000 employees and about $11 billion in revenues in FY2010. It slaughtered about 27 million animals last year in the U.S. “We’re the largest pork producer in the world, by a long shot,” says Dennis Treacy, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

Yes, Smithfield has a chief sustainability officer–and that may surprise you if you remember reading horror stories about Smithfield’s confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), its problems managing pig manure, its labor conflicts or animal welfare  issues in places like The New York Times and Rolling Stone. The company was featured–not in a flattering way–in the movie Food Inc. and sued by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dennis Treacy

Treacy had problems with Smithfield, too, before joining the company. In fact, Treacy, who was the director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for the state of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 under Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, once sued Smithfield for polluting the state’s waters.  (You could look it up.) In 1997, Smithfield was fined $12 million, one of the largest fines at the time, for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Now, though, Treacy says Smithfield has cleaned up not just the water but its own act. He’s been with the company for nine years, and says he was hired to make the company more sustainable and improve its reputation. “We have slowly but surely built a sustainability program,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do, and everybody wants to work for a company that is respected.”

I met Dennis earlier this week in Washington. He seems like a good guy, and he’s spent his career on environmental issues–he studied fisheries and wildlife at Virginia Tech, got a law degree from Lewis and Clark in Oregon, which is a top environmental law school, and he lives on a small farm near Richmond where he and his wife raise chickens and rabbits.

There’s solid evidence, too, that Smithfield is changing. The company settled with Waterkeeper, which praised its remediation efforts. After a long and bitter battle with union organizers, workers got to vote, formed a union and negotiated a contract with Smithfield. The company got 36 notices of environmental violations in 2009, the last year in which it reported data, and paid $81,726 in fines–which isn’t zero, but it’s far less than $12 million and its numbers are generally moving in the right direction. “We’ve got 48,000 employees out there,” Dennis told me, “and while we’re having this discussion, one of them is doing something wrong. This is a really tough indiustry. Many of our facilities are old.” The company published a 101-page corporate social responsibility report, disclosing more than anyone would want to know about its greenhouse gas emissions, water use, employee safety record, community giving, etc.

Treacy says there are several reasons why Smithfield has changed. No company likes running up big legal fees or paying big fines. Some of its “green” initiatives deliver directly to the bottom line–for example, it captures methane emissions and turns them into electricity at its big pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.  Besides that, some of its biggest customers –Walmart and McDonald’s, notably–have insisted that their suppliers become more environmentally responsible.

The McDonald’s of the world don’t want people attacking their brand. Neither does Walmart,” Dennis said. “Neither do we.” As part of the Walmart-driven Sustainability Index, Smithfield has joined with other pork producers to fund research at the University of Arkansas to better measure the carbon footprint of pork production, from farm to plate.

Still, Smithfield is a prime example of what critics like to describe as “industrial agriculture” or “factory farms.” There’s nothing bucolic about raising pigs for the mass market. Pigs don’t wander free. They’re raised indoors, in crowded barns.  Their manure drops through slats in the floor and is flushed through underground pipes into giant, smelly lagoons. This creates what Smithfield likes to call a “natural fertilizer” which is then spread or sprayed onto fields where corn, soybeans, Bermuda grass or other crops are grown. (See the chart below, from Smithfield; click to make it larger.)

All of Smithfield’s farms s meet ISO 14001 standards, an environmental standard that requires third-party certification. “This is one of the most highly regulated activities there is in the environmental field,” Dennis says, adding wryly: “We can’t afford to make a mistake given the reputation we enjoy.”

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Given Smithfield’s sorry history, those of us who pay attention to sustainability would do well to withhold cheers, at least for now. We’ll see how the company performs for the next few years.

Beyond that, we should consider the bigger questions about whether it makes sense to grow vast amounts of corn and soybeans to feed pigs to create animal protein. Many people argue that meat production is  bad for the planet and that eating as much meat as Americans do (twice global averages) is bad  for our  health, although the science isn’t settled. See, for example, Mark Bittman on the evils of meat and a recent, differing and provocative  view from Gary Taubes (Is Sugar Toxic?),  both in The New York Times.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a different approach to meat–an idea known as Meatless Mondays, that comes not from PETA but from a global corporation that feeds tends of millions of people every day.

 

Comments

  1. Excellent article, Mark. And I’m glad to see Smithfield making steps in the right direction.
    I do have some further concerns, however: is the feed laced with antibiotics? (I assume so, given this is a CAFO). With antibiotic resistance a catastrophe that is already happening, this is a problem. Also, what about nitrogen runoff from the fertilizer from the pig manure — also a serious issue that is degrading our waterways.
    Thanks for your balanced treatment.

    • Thanks, Francesa, the antibiotic issue is an important one (also because it could contaminate the fertilizer, some say) but I did not address it with Dennis Treacy.

      Smithfield’s position on runoff is that they are very careful to apply the fertilizer at times when it is not raining, as I recall, and prevent runoff.

      I’d really like to see some independent third part research on the health/environmental impacts of pork farming before coming to any conclusions about Smithfield.

  2. Lewis E. Ward says:

    Good balance. Smithfield needs more than one sustainability guy. Sustainability has to become part of the bottom line. In pig, beef, chicken farming it is the scale of the operation that creates negative impacts on the environment. Sure the operations are highly efficient and profitable if you ignore the environmental impact of manure and water. Rather than fixing a poorly designed large operation designing a smaller more environmentally friendly operation would ultimately be more cost effective and not require as much regulation.
    As Francesca pointed out the use of antibiotics and acaricides. The antibiotics have become routine rather than remedial. Smaller operations requiring rotational pasturing would reduce the antibiotic use. An old remedy for one problem was feeding the pigs clean sod.

  3. wow.this is bad.the company should be sued for even more money!!!i mean who cares about the clen water act!!think of the animals for crying out loud!!!that is no way to treat living beings!!i watched a video on youtube that animal lovers are getting revenge on animal neglecters.they called it S.T.A.L. itwas a place that covered almost 150 acres of land in the middle of nowere in kansas.it was built to be a mental hospital but never got fineshed. a unknown company bought the land.the put in thousands and thousands of tiny thick metal stalls.when it opened for buissness, they brought in animal neglecters from allover the us.the people were shoved tn the stalls and forced to eat garbage.they were tourchered.neglectedd just like how they treated animals.most died in that place.the roomer is it still goes on till this day.they dont let anyone inside exerpt the animal lovers.no film crews.creepy.

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  1. […] chairman and CEO of Smithfield Foods (they make more hot dogs than anyone in America, as I wrote in Smithfield Foods: Sustainable Pork?); Vance Bell, the chairman and CEO of Shaw Industries (the world’s largest carpet […]

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