Source: Mother Jones
Millions of pigs are crammed into overcrowded barns all across the state, being fattened for slaughter while breeding superbugs—all to feed China’s growing appetite for Spam.
Before I even stepped from my truck onto the gravel outside the New Fashion Pork hog confinement facility, Emily Erickson, the company’s animal well-being and quality assurance manager, handed me a pair of stretchy white plastic footies to put over my shoes. It was a blustery day in September, the sky threatening snow—the first hint of winter, when cold, dry air stabilizes viruses and biosecurity becomes a topmost concern.
All of the hogs inside the confinement near Jackson, Minnesota, just north of the Iowa state line and on the headwaters of the Des Moines River, would be sold to Hormel Foods. Hormel would soon post record profits on the strength of sales of Spam to Asian markets and the expansion of the company’s China operations. But Jim Snee, head of Hormel Foods International, announced that the company was making an even bigger push, to firmly establish Spam in Chinese grocery stores before products from its competitor Smithfield Foods, purchased by Shuanghui International in May, could elbow them out. As a major supplier to Hormel’s Spam plants in Minnesota and Nebraska, New Fashion Pork was racing to keep pace with demand. The last thing the company could afford was an outbreak of disease.
To an outsider, the hog industry’s vigilance against external pathogens—symbolized by those hygienic footies—can seem strangely at odds with its dismissal of concerns about the effects of its facilities on human health. Large producers like New Fashion insist that the enormous, concrete-reinforced waste pits under each confinement—many with a capacity of 300,000 gallons—effectively prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil, and that manure is carefully managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources under laws aimed at accounting for all manure at all times. But mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007.
Between May and July 2013, as downpours sheeted off drought-hardened fields, scientists at the Des Moines Water Works watched manure contamination spike to staggering levels at intake sites on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. These two major tributaries of the Mississippi are also the usual sources of drinking water for roughly one out of every six Iowans. But at one point last summer, nitrate in the Raccoon reached 240 percent of the level allowed under the Clean Water Act, and the DMWW warned parents not to let children drink from the tap, reminding them of the risk of blue baby syndrome. (Nitrate impairs the oxygen capacity of the bloodstream; in babies and toddlers the syndrome can effectively cut off their air supply, rendering them a deathly blue.)
Mounting concern about the safety of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has stoked a public outcry. So, to be honest, I was shocked when Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork, agreed to allow me to tour one of its facilities. In the changing room, I zipped into some navy coveralls and slid a pair of clear plastic boots over a second set of footies. Emily Erickson turned the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.