Earlier this month the Obama family changed its diet. It was announced that the Presidential Food Service will serve meats only from sources that follow responsible antibiotic use. (Presumably, though, there’s still this loophole.)
The White House concern is that the overuse of antibiotics in food animals is making us sick. While that’s true, there’s also a deeper story in play here, which the President has so far shied away from.
Others, however, not so much. As F. Scott Fitgerald once observed: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me … They have more money.”
And he could add, if he were around today, they make fearless films. A case in point is actress turned aristocrat turned activist Tracy Worcester (nee Ward, and sister of actress Rachel Ward).
Ms. Worcester (pronounced ‘Wuster’) spent 4 years exploring the global pig business, learning where and how pork is produced, and asking who wins and who loses. The result is a gem of a film, Pig Business, which makes its case this way:
(1) On Profit: Worcester uses Smithfield Foods of America as her case study. It’s the world’s largest pork producer (i.e., “farmer”) and processor. With annual sales of almost $12 billion dollars, it processes over 27 million pigs a year, and employs over 52,000 people in 15 countries.
And it slaughters more than hogs. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is featured in the film, explains: “Twenty years ago there were 27,500 independent hog farms in North Carolina. Today they’ve been completely replaced by 2,200 hog factories, 1,600 of them owned or operated by Smithfield Foods.”
(2) On Cruelty: On such a vast industrial scale, pigs are no longer seen as animals but as industrial raw material. “We’ve taken the lessons of industrial systems designed to build cars and machines and applied them to living creatures. It’s infinitely cruel and no civilized society ought to countenance it,” says Tom Garrett of the Animal Welfare Institute. As he speaks, the film shows acts of cruelty – briefly, but long enough – least among them, sows in narrow cages during gestation, too narrow to turn around in.
(3) On Health: We are paying the ultimate hidden price: we are getting sick. Because hogs produce 10 times the fecal waste that humans do, the gases coming out of a swine operation are a “toxic brew” of dust, bacteria, and antibiotics, all mixed together with the upshot that:
“One of the big weaknesses of the system is the heavy dependence on antibiotics, and the fact that causes infections that can spread from animals to humans such as … MRSA. [I]n the Netherlands for example, where the most research has been undertaken, 40% of their pigs are carrying a strain of MRSA that can be passed to humans,” says Richard Young, policy adviser to the highly regarded Soil Association in Britain.
Worcester’s film may be 6 years old but she gets it just right. For example, scientists reported last year that people living closer to industrial pig farms – which includes the workers – were 38 percent more likely to have a MRSA infection than people living farther away. And the people getting MRSA are not like the ones who used to get it; they’re not old and sick, they’re young and healthy.
This map of rural Pennsylvania, where the research was done, tells the story. Each red dot is the home of a person with a MRSA infection. The blue bits are the pig farms.
So the pigs lose. We, the consumer, lose. The small farmer and his family who are run out of business lose. The low wage worker the farmer is replaced with loses. And people living downwind or downstream of the industrial farm lose.
So who wins?
Worcester gets to the heart of this business model in her interview with Professor of Economics and former Central Banker, Bernard Lietaer, who says the driving force is return on investment: “The financial institutions are running the show. The governments are all indebted to them. In the U.S. a third of all contributions to political campaigns are done by the financial institutions. So there’s no chance that they would change the rules of the game.” (My emphasis.)
Tracy Worcerster’s film is important enough in its own right. But its central message also serves as a powerful explanation for how the deep structures of capital determine not just wealth and debt, but, in this case, disease as well. Simply put: International corporations too often produce an inferior product at a cheaper price and, in doing so, kick small business – i.e. families – to the curb, trampling over local communities, wreaking environmental havoc and consequent illness. What Mr. Kennedy describes in the film as the “Walmartization of America.”
As Ms. Worcester frames it in an interview with The Guardian of London: “The story of the pig industry was the epitome of what’s going on in every [industrial] sector.”
Compare, for example, the energy sector, where these scholars, among others, argue that “What is needed for climate stability is a systemic transformation based on … changed … corporate and financial power structures.” In other words, on this view, both MRSA and climate change are themselves symptomatic of a common and structural underlying “disease.”
This smart, elegant film, has met with legal opposition from industry players. Many copies, therefore, are truncated or watered-down. Here’s one, though, that seems to be the complete version.