Meat plant closings show fragility of 'get big' system, say Midwest family farm groups
The announced closing of Smithfield’s Sioux Falls meatpacking plant due to a COVID-19 outbreak affecting over 600 workers is a vivid example of the vulnerability of a highly concentrated meat production system that exploits farmers, workers and rural communities, said family farm groups based in four Midwest states.
The groups based in South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri criticized the factory farm system that feeds into giant Midwest pork processing plants, which have driven out small and mid-sized meat processing plants, undercut independent producers and increased water pollution throughout the region.
“What is happening at Smithfield is a colossal disaster!” said Stephanie Peterson, Dakota Rural Action member and pastured egg producer. “I am dumbfounded as to why we continue to rely on a system that is so destructive and does not value anyone working within the system. When will we see that investing in local food systems and providing incentives for local food purchases makes more sense, is more sustainable and is more economically viable for more members of our community?”
“When that Smithfield plant was owned by John Morrell Company, I sold hogs there for over 30 years,” said Land Stewardship Project member and Minnesota hog producer Paul Sobocinski. “As the meat industry has become consolidated to an unimaginable scale, companies like Smithfield have gained unprecedented power. They stopped buying from farmers like me and successfully lobbied the government to allow them to increase line speeds to ‘profitable’ levels in their ‘elbow to elbow’ production systems. Now, a single meat processor can be the only game in town for hundreds of miles. When that plant shuts down, either temporarily or permanently, the negative repercussions start in rural communities and extend to your local grocery store.”
The groups emphasized the need for any pandemic response aid to go directly to farmers and workers — not multinational companies with operations around the world, including WH Group/Smithfield and JBS, which reported huge earnings in 2019.
“Corporate concentration and control of our farm and food system are a major problem, and COVID-19 is further illuminating the far-reaching consequences of a food system largely controlled by a few multinational food companies,” said Jeff Jones, Missouri Rural Crisis Center member and fourth generation cattle and grain farmer from Callaway County, Missouri. “Smithfield Foods and absentee-controlled factory farm corporations like them have put hundreds of thousands of U.S. family farmers out of business. Instead of public taxpayer dollars again subsidizing corporate ag, we need to instead invest in independent family farms and our rural communities. The negative consequences of corporate, absentee and foreign control of our food supply needs to be addressed both now and after this crisis is over.”
The groups called for aid to focus on revitalizing the infrastructure needed for more resilient, regional food systems that allow independent family-scale livestock operations to access a fair and functional marketplace, without relying on massive factory farms tied to supply chains for massive corporate-owned slaughterhouses.
“In Iowa, a handful of big companies like Smithfield dominate hog production at every level of the food chain — from the CAFO to the packing plants to distribution. This production model is bad for farmers, workers, and it has caused a water quality crisis across our state,” said Cherie Mortice, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member from Des Moines. “This pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to pad CEO salaries or let these companies off the hook for their pollution or their worker abuses.”
“Smithfield’s failure to take immediate and appropriate action in response to the COVID-19 outbreak in its Sioux Falls facility was outrageous and demonstrates its ongoing commitment not to the health and safety of its employees or the security of our food supply but rather to its own bottom line,” said Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch. “We must not allow the industry to use the pandemic as an excuse to keep pushing for deregulation by approving faster slaughter line speeds or reduced inspection.”
The groups called for government pandemic response programs to:
• Prioritize access to safety net programs for farms and small food businesses.
• Prohibit loans for new or expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.
• Require fair market practices rules to allow independent livestock producers and small and mid-sized packing plants to compete on a level playing field.
• Establish a moratorium on new agribusiness and food industry mergers.
• Reinstate mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL).
“Much of the pork and profits of this system are extracted from rural communities by these highly profitable global companies,” said Ben Lilliston of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Public aid needs to get to those who need it most — workers off the job and independent farmers who have lost their markets.”
The Campaign for Family Farms & the Environment (CFFE) is composed of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Dakota Rural Action, Land Stewardship Project, Food & Water Watch and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.