A recent Wall Street Journal article about the planned takeover of Smithfield Foods Inc. by Shuanghui International Holdings, China's biggest meat processor, was headlined "What China Can Learn From America's Hot Dogs," but the lessons delivered were dangerously one-sided.
While the acquisition may indeed represent China's desire "to industrialize its archaic food-production system to address rampant health problems and feed an increasingly wealthy population," as the Journal concludes, U.S. history would suggest it will only achieve the latter.
The industrialization of the American meat system has inarguably resulted in cheap hot dogs. But at what price? China should think hard about the consequences that will likely flow from adopting the U.S. factory farming model.
I write this as both the CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company, a leading food service provider that buys 3 million pounds of pork per year, and as a former member of the Pew Commission for Industrial Farm Animal Production. For two years I and the other commissioners -- including a former USDA secretary, former dean of the University of Tennessee Veterinary School, ranchers, and bioethicists -- visited industrial meat operations in Iowa, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Colorado. We listened to stakeholders and experts for more than 50 hours.
We identified the problems factory farming has caused in four major areas -- public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural communities -- and made recommendations. Sadly, in the five years since the Pew Commission's report (PDF), nothing has changed in the meat industry, except for the worse.
Fans of the U.S. meat industry's efficiency and low prices approve of hogs living (if you can call it that) in "vast, climate-controlled buildings, fed specialized diets of corn and soybean meal," and of our overall food-safety record. However, like cheap prices for consumers, "safe food" also has hidden costs. Lean, finely-textured ground beef has been doused with ammonia that kills the bacteria it's teeming with. So-called "pink slime" is unquestionably safe to eat, but do you want to feed it to your child? Consumer protests led the USDA to recall it from hamburgers in the school lunch program. And while our food may be much, much safer than China's currently, we still have massive outbreaks such as salmonella-contaminated eggs or peanut butter.
Likewise, the meat industry doesn't like to talk about its dependence on antibiotics. The FDA estimates that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to farm animals, to make them fatten faster and to proactively control disease in their overcrowded conditions. Such reckless overuse has produced a crisis in public health, as pathogens mutate in response and antibiotics stop working against them in humans.
Those antibiotic-resistant bacteria do not stay locked up in our factory farms. They travel -- on the surface of our meat and in the lakes of industrial hog manure, which is also full of ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorus, nitrates, and heavy metals. A Dec. 14, 2006 Rolling Stone cover story about Smithfield titled "Boss Hog" -- that should be required reading for China's regulators -- estimates the company's fecal output then at 26 million tons a year, enough to fill four Yankee stadiums. I saw firsthand how industrial hog manure has literally poisoned rural America's rivers and land, along with its fish and residents.
But let's talk about what good things the Chinese pork industry could learn from ours, if only they took lessons from small producers. Through our Farm to Fork program, our chefs are proud to have direct buying relationships with Pure Country Pork, in Washington State; Miller Livestock, in Ohio; and many others. They grow hogs without drugs and in humane, unconfined conditions, just as does Russ Kremer, a fifth-generation Missouri pork producer and winner of one of this year's Natural Resources Defense Council Growing Green Awards.
Russ used to raise pigs the so-called conventional way -- until he almost died from an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection in 1989. He started over and went back to the old-fashioned model and now leads the thriving 52-member Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative, which processes 1,300 hogs a week and is profitable. That's about what one of the big guys kills in an hour... in just one plant.
China has not demonstrated it cares much for environmental safety, workers' health, or animal welfare. But even if it cares only for sticker price and food safety, it would do well to foster networks of smaller producers like Russ's, rather than acquiring one of our heedlessly polluting mega-giants.
Our system is broken. Why buy it for billions?