More Smithfield Blowback: Another Response

This response to my piece against Smithfield Foods came from a vet who specializes in swine. I’m posting it so readers can see beyond the article I wrote into the many interests that are at stake, and what happens after such a piece runs. I’ve chosen to give this writer anonymity, as he seems to be writing as a private citizen rather than on behalf of a corporation. 


Dear Prof. McWilliams,

A friend sent me a link to your article in The Atlantic, and as a
swine veterinarian I take some exception to your article. I was
trained in veterinary medicine in Pennsylvania, and so I have had the
opportunity to see some (not all) of Smithfield’s operations first
hand. The operations I viewed were decent operations, that were above
commercial standards. We may improve them but to target Smithfield, a
company that is trying, is a little unfair.

I believe that relying on the HSUS for any sort of information is
dangerous to begin with. They are an organization that wins popular
support by promoting adoption and rescue of dogs and cats, but at the
end of the day their real goal is to create a vegan society. So when
you refer to HSUS and then use terms like “hellish conditions,” you
set your article within the same rhetoric as the extreme animal
liberation and rights movement and apart from the mainstream animal
welfare movement.

Further, your article uses words that I would not have even have
gotten away with in a high school paper, “many crates were coated with
blood,” “routinely fell through the gate’s slats,” “many lame pigs?”
Words like “many” and “routinely” have loose and meaningless
definitions in the scientific community and you fail to define them in
this piece. What qualifies as many? One sow, two sows, 100 out of
1,000 sows? I can also assure you that prematurely born piglets do not
“routinely” fall into the manure pit. Prematurely born pigs means you
have a disease in you sow herd that is causing abortions. Diseases
like porcine parvovirus (PPV) and porcine respiratory and reproductive
syndrome (PRRS) can cause abortions and premature farrowings, but
growers, like Smithfield, would be vaccinating for PPV and controlling
for PRRS. Routine premature farrowing means there is a large problem
and if this were routine throughout Smithfield facilities they would
not be a successful corporation. They would be getting crushed by the
other sow herds.

Finally, if done correctly, loose housing in gestation can be
better welfare for sows. However, one must consider that sows in a
group larger than 6-8 animals are going to fight for space. The
gestation crates provide sows with adequate feed and a safe area away
from aggressive sows. In a loose house she now has to compete for food
and fend off other animals. These problems can be resolved through
electronic sow feeder installation and self catching crates where sows
can escape to, but to say loose housing is flat out better welfare
misses the nuances. Loose housing has to be done right, and it is an
expensive venture to start up. Also, sows must be crated in farrowing
to prevent them from crushing their piglets. We have not found away
around this. Sweden is struggling with low numbers of pigs weaned per
so per year because they have some many piglets crushed to death in
their crate less system and Denmark, which has banned gestation
crates, still has farrowing crates. One issue that is yet to be
resolved is how to move a sow from loose housing to a farrowing crate
without causing her much stress. This is a problem to be solved,
though, not an excuse for gestation crates.

You may personally have other reasons to avoid the McRib, but
Smithfield should not be one of them if you buy almost any other type
of pork product in this country. Smithfield is among the best large
scale producers in terms of welfare. We may push them to be better,
and as a veterinarian that is my job. Articles, like your recent entry
in The Atlantic, do not help when, they spread disinformation (routine
abortions), use weasel words (hellish conditions, many lame pigs) and
fail to be diplomatic. If you want deceptive campaigning you should
look into Wholefood’s “welfare” market scheme. They may advertise
their top tier welfare, but since no pig farmers have been able to
meet it they’ve created several categories of welfare but continue to
advertise only the best.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

2 Responses to More Smithfield Blowback: Another Response

  1. Karen Messier says:

    I believe it is simply impossible to provide pigs with even a basic level of care in any large scale operation. The larger the operation, the less space these animals have and the less time workers have to interact with them, or identify which ones might be ill or lame. Perhaps Smithfiled can spell out in detail, what their particular interpretation of “care and safety” of pigs really means. I would like to know why they believe that housing a sow on a concrete floor in a strictly confined cage for moths at a time could be considered an adequate level of care. Keeping an animal “safe” is quite different from caring for it.

  2. Provoked says:

    It’s interesting that the use of words like “many” and “routinely” are considered vague and unscientific. Yet the term “standard practice” can apply to a myriad of variables that defend the most heinous acts within an industry that Smithfield is leader of. I’m thinking specifically of hog hanging as a way to legally, “humanely euthanize”.

    Even the use of the Paylean drug made by Elanco subjects pigs to severe pain and crippling muscle failure, but that doesn’t appear to compromise their view of what “high welfare standards” are either. It’s clear they make up their own rules and polish their own image to suit whatever spin consumers will buy.

    But I always get a chuckle when I hear that HSUS is an “extreme animal liberation and rights movement” – Is there any more proof that they haven’t a clue of who represents “mainstream” welfare groups?

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