Book Review: Wastelands by Corban Addison

In a David vs. Goliath tale like this one could hardly hope for a more ruthless and intimidating giant than Smithfield. The company is not only the largest pork producer in the world, but also the owner of the largest slaughterhouse in the world. Located in Tar Heel, NC, this slaughterhouse cuts approximately 32,000 hogs daily. For years, workers at the Tar Heel plant were treated almost as badly as pigs: Smithfield harassed union supporters, paid workers to spy on colleagues, and hired deputy sheriffs as company security officers to beat and arrest workers. The company originated in Smithfield, Virginia in the 1930’s and later grew into a corporate dynasty led successively by Joseph W. Luter Sr., Joseph W. Luter Jr. and Joseph W. Luter III. It gradually grew by pioneering industrial methods of pig production and by acquiring its competitors. But by the time the North Carolina lawsuits were filed in 2013, Smithfield Foods was no longer an American company. Shuanghui International Holdings, a Chinese company now known as WH Group, bought it last year with funding from the state-owned Bank of China. The cost of raising hogs in North Carolina was about half that of China — and one of the reasons, Addison explains, is that “the Chinese government doesn’t allow their hog farmers to use lagoons and spray fields.” Instead, Chinese pig farms must invest in “treatment facilities” and “organic odor control systems to protect neighbors.”

Wastelands is full of memorable people. A string of high-profile lawyers agree to take on Smithfield and work for free in exchange for a share of a settlement. They fly private jets, use focus groups, hire a National Geographic videographer to mediate the distress of the neighbors. Mona Lisa Wallace is the most personable and compelling member of the legal team, brilliant, tireless, raised in small town North Carolina from a working class background dedicated to using the courts to help victims of corporate wrongdoing. Standing out among the plaintiffs is Elsie Herring — one of 15 children who left North Carolina for New York City and returned nearly 30 years later, only to find herself drenched in a foggy manure rain while taking a walk near their family home. So has Violet Branch, one of 11 children, who has lived in her birthplace for more than 70 years but has endured pollution from two garbage lagoons next door. Before the lawsuit, Branch had been relentlessly reaching out to health officials, journalists and even the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington to rid himself of the stench. “Nothing is being done about this matter – nothing has been done,” she bravely testified in court, “because the power structure in these communities doesn’t allow for anything to be done about it.”

Smithfield is brazenly using his powers to avoid liability for the disputed legal “harassment” in court. She is threatening to leave the state if the lawsuits are successful. She spies on the lawyers and hires private investigators to keep tabs on the plaintiffs. It helps start a front group, NC Farm Families. It works closely with the State Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and the Republican Party, whose members introduce legislation in the Legislature to protect Smithfield from liability. The smells from the company’s pig operations, boasts one Republican lawmaker, are the “smell of freedom.” The legislature’s only significant departure from pro-industry policy came in 1997, when it passed a temporary moratorium on new hog farms — just as two were about to be built in Moore County, home of Pinehurst Resort and its legendary golf courses.

I am neither vegan nor vegetarian. But I think the pig factories described in Wastelands and the similar CAFOs in other states are forms of systematic animal cruelty. They are crimes against nature. Pigs are intelligent and sensitive creatures capable of multilevel thinking like dolphins and apes, with a social structure similar to that of elephants. Pigs can recognize themselves in the mirror, distinguish one person from another, remember negative experiences. And they like it clean. Their life in pig factories bears little resemblance to how they have been raised for millennia. They arrive as little piglets, live crammed together in the dirt and a few months later go to the slaughterhouse – without having enjoyed a moment outdoors during their entire time in the barn. The rot of these places for the animals that live there and the people that live near them is truly indescribable.

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