Film review: Pig Business

Originally due to premiere on Channel 4 in February, Pig Business – a documentary about intensive pig farming – was cancelled because of fears of legal action from Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork. Subsequent screenings have also ran in to difficulties, with a recent showing at the Barbican only going ahead once the director, Tracy Worcester, signed an indemnity taking personal responsibility for its content.


So what are Smithfield Foods so afraid of?


Four years in the making and just over 70 minutes long in its current form (the version I watched may be cut down for future broadcasts), this cogent documentary argues that intensive pig farming is "bad for our food, our health and the livelihoods of our rural communities."


Initially focussing on the United States, Worcester explains how large corporations such as Smithfield Foods – an organisation that processes 27 million pigs in fifteen countries producing sales of $12 billion every year – now have effective control over the whole market, producing cheap meat to supermarkets, which in turn sends small, independent farms out of business.


Housed in superstore-sized sheds in cramped conditions with little natural light, the stressed-out hogs produce a staggering amount of waste (pigs defecate ten times the amount a human does), often contaminating the local water table and emitting an illness-inducing stench. Tom Garrett, from the Animal Welfare Institute, argues this is nothing less than "the application of industrial systems that were designed to build car and machines, to living creatures."


Tired of being steamrolled by large corporations, in the 90s a grassroots movement of farmers and environmentalists won a number of small, but significant victories, leading to greater regulation of pig farms in the US. For example, in 1997 Smithfield Foods was fined $12.6 million for discharging illegal levels of pollutants into the PaganRiver in Virginia – the then largest ever financial penalty given by the US Environmental Protection Agency.


In response to this popular protest and increasingly restrictive laws, Smithfield Foods relocated much of its business to countries such as Poland, where it purchased former state farms and slaughterhouses at bargain basement prices. As Worcester points out, following the radical free-market shock-therapy of the early 90s, what is euphemistically called a "favourable business environment" was created in Poland – that is low labour costs, light regulation, poor governance etc. Speaking to the Polish Senate, Robert Kennedy, Jr, son of US liberal legend Bobby Kennedy and Chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance, notes that Smithfield Foods is trying to "get away with something in Poland that people in the United States now recognise is a catastrophe."


A long-time environmental activist working on a small budget, Worcester has done a great public service by shining a light on an industry that would prefer to stay out of the public eye. She has certainly done her homework, gaining incisive interviews with academic experts, politicians, industry heads and ordinary people on both sides of the debate. Best of all is the film’s centrepiece interview with Smithfield Foods’ Vice-President of Environmental and Corporate Affairs, Worcester‘s pointed and passionate questions countered by some particularly bland and slippery answers.


Frustratingly, like much of the coverage of animal welfare in the mainstream, Worcester fails to consider vegetarianism as a legitimate response to the problem. Her plea for consumers to flex their power by buying locally produced, organic, free-range meat is welcome. However, if you are really concerned about pig welfare isn’t the answer to not eat these intelligent creatures in the first place? Am I the only person baffled by the widely-held view that you can care deeply for a creature but be happy for it to be killed and eaten as long as it has had a good life? On the other hand, perhaps it could be argued that an ethically-minded meat eater has more influence on the welfare of animals than those who completely disengage with the industry such as vegetarians.


But while the debate continues about how best to improve the lives of pigs and those people – workers, local residents and consumers – who are most affected by the industry, it is clear Smithfield Foods only has one interest: profit. As Joel Bakan notes in his seminal study of the corporate world "the corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause others."


Seen in this light, the legal threats from Smithfield Foods are a logical response to this illuminating and absorbing documentary. In short, there is no doubt that if Pig Business receives a wide audience, it will be very bad for Smithfield Foods own pig business. 


"It’s a battle about who is going to control our resources", Kennedy, Jr sums up at the film’s close. "Are our resources going to be controlled by a corporate-feudal system or are they going to be controlled by the people?"



Pig Business is directed by Tracy Worcester:


*An edited version of this review recently appeared in the Morning Star.  [email protected].


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