Last Wednesday, Chinese corporation the Shuanghui Group announced its plan to buy Smithfield Foods. The Shuanghui Group claims that the purchase won't affect Smithfield's standards of production, but that hasn't stopped many people interested in food production from raising a collective eyebrow.
A spokesperson for PETA sent this press release:
The news that Shuanghui Group, China’s largest meat processor, has agreed to buy Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has many people concerned about the Chinese company’s food-safety and animal-welfare standards. After all, Shuanghui was once caught feeding pigs clenbuterol, a drug that causes nausea and dizziness when consumed by humans.
But Smithfield doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record either. The company has come under fire for confining pregnant pigs to metal gestation crates so small that the animals can’t turn around or even take a single step in any direction.
PETA caught workers at one of Smithfield’s suppliers, dragging injured pigs out of the facility by their snouts, ears, and legs before killing them with a captive-bolt gun. Some of the pigs had "KILL" spray-painted on their backs. Workers also cut off piglets' tails and pulled out piglets' testicles—without using any pain relief—as the baby animals screamed in pain in front of mother pigs.
If you don’t want to support these abuses, please don’t buy pork products. See www.PETA.org for information about tasty mock meats and other vegan options.
But going vegan might be beside the point.
Mike Callicrate, a rancher and local food distributor, doesn't see the sale as a remote, isolated incident. Instead, the Smithfield purchase is a kind of barometer for the way large-scale, U.S.-based producers of meat are headed. I asked him what he thinks the deal means for your suddenly symbolic bacon sandwich.
Indy: Could you give me a general overview of what you think that the average guy on the street ought to know about this deal?
Callicrate: Well we decided about
four 40 years ago that we should industrialize our food system. The big corporations, the land grant universities and the government all together basically agreed that we should industrialize our food system and that we should work in a global market. Rather than worrying about our communities and our states and our nation being able to feed itself, we should really join the global community ... we now have the results of that effort in front of us. And I think [it's] fully proven to have been a failed idea to begin with.
One of the things that happened as a result of this globalization and industrialization is that the biggest and most powerful corporations in the world end up running our governments and controlling our economies and, where I'm most concerned, our food systems.
Today, the biggest beef packer in America is JBS, a Brazilian company. They just bought two more packing plants recently, putting them in the number one position now in front of Tyson and Cargill. The biggest poultry company in America today is JBS, the same Brazilian company ... And when I say the biggest, I'm talking four companies control 85 percent of the beef market. So, together they've got the capability of cooperating with one another and essentially monopolizing the industry, which they, in fact, have done.
Now Smithfield, the biggest pork company in the world based out of the United States, has just entered an agreement to sell to the largest pork company in China. And so now, the third category of meat in addition to beef and poultry, pork, will likely be controlled by a Chinese company.
Now, this is the same United States that 40 years ago had said, 'We think that
our cause agriculture is important. We not only want to feed ourselves, but we want to feed the world. Well, I'll tell you, we now are a net food importer. And we certainly aren't going to be feeding the world and in fact can't even feed ourselves and have absolutely no control of our food system.
And of course, the government goes right along with these big mergers and buy-outs and further concentrations of these sectors within our food system, and it is absolutely a travesty. We are becoming less and less able to feed ourselves. That directly impacts our national sovereignty.
Indy: So you see this as part of a larger trend of globalization, specifically in the food industry?
Callicrate: Absolutely, absolutely. We've got Monsanto that really controls much of the seed in the world now through their patents. Cargill controls a huge amount of the chemical and fertilizer trade as well as the grain trade. We've got companies like JBS, which is the biggest meatpacker in the world, growing exponentially financed with Brazilian taxpayer money, money from the state.
That's a little hard to compete with as an independent company
someone somewhere who borrows money from the local bank. I think we're in real trouble. And I think it really emphasizes the need to build local food systems, like we do with Ranch Foods Direct, and for people support those local food systems. Because one of these days very soon, we're going to be begging China and Brazil for something to eat.
Indy: Apart from the larger globalization trend (if you can make that distinction), what do you think the deal's effect is on local producers and distributors like yourself?
Callicrate: Well, I don't see a whole lot changing because Smithfield and just a handful of others put 90 percent of the pork producers out of business. So it's already over for the independent pork producer. It's essentially already over for the small-meat company. They have already been driven out of business over the last 30 years. We've lost over 40 percent of our beef producers. We've lost well over 80 percent of our dairy farmers. And so, the damage is done.
Now it's Smithfield, a public company, trying to make money selling to the Chinese and get out from a shareholder's perspective. They're wanting to make money and they don't care about a sustainable food system that serves people well. They care about the return on their money. And so, what I really see happening in the future is the collapse of that food system under this industrial and corporate control and the need, an absolute vital need, to rebuild local-regional food systems.
The problem is, if these big corporations continue to control our government the way that they have previously in the last 30 years, they will make sure there are barriers to entry for the alternative food-system companies like myself, to where we simply cannot compete. They will make sure regulations are onerous and abusive as they, in fact, now are. And I think that will make it much more difficult for any competition to exist.
What it comes down to in my view is that we've got to take our government back. There's no way, no way in the world, that our government should approve the sale of Smithfield to a Chinese company.
Indy: Other news sources have been framing the primary concern for the American public as one over the standards of the food being produced. ... They're saying that it shouldn't affect the pork that we consume in the U.S. Do you think that's an accurate representation?
Callicrate: Well, the pork that we eat in the U.S. is of the lowest standards in the world. China doesn't even accept ractopamine in the pork. We've got a lower standard
that than China does. We do less inspection of meat than any country in the world with our HACCP programs, our Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. We have nothing to lose in that regard. We're already on the bottom.
What you see written right now if you Google this story, you will find the industry view. And they always promote further concentration and consolidation because it's profitable to those companies that are selling to the bigger companies. You've got to dig a little deeper to find what the real food people think and how it might impact us.
The way I look at this sale to China, Smithfield has simply sold to a bigger and more dangerous predator company, or predator owner. We owe China a lot of money thanks to our trade imbalance over the last several years, and they really would like to make sure that they get their money back. So we can sell them our industries and they can set up a point of extraction to take money out of our country at a very, very large rate of extraction. ...
It's the difference between locally owned and not locally owned. And now it's even beyond that, it's another country that owns an industry that used to at least produce wealth for the country even though it may have damaged a lot of communities. At least most of the money stayed in the United States. Now it's going to leave, as it does with JBS.