Complaint against Smithfield alleges false sustainability advertising, deceptive consumer tactics

Rebekah Tuchscherer
rtuchscherer@gannett.com

The nation’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, Inc., had a complaint filed against it Feb. 4 that alleges instances of false andmisleading advertising related to the company’s sustainability efforts.

Filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the complaint details instances in which Smithfield has greenwashed, or falsely conveyed its company as environmentally friendly in the hopes of attracting earth-conscious customers, on its website, YouTube channel, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages.

“While Smithfield tells consumers that its production facilities are ‘the opposite’ of ‘factory farms,’ the company in reality relies on the factory farm model from start to finish,” the complaint says. “Put simply, Smithfield’s actual practices and products are unavoidably at odds with how a reasonable consumer would understand Smithfield’s environmentally related advertisements and marketing.”

Smithfield has a total of 50 pork processing plants in the U.S., including one in Sioux Falls that has violated its water discharge permit many times throughout 2018, 2019 and 2020. This includes a 2019 instance in which 353,300% more fecal coliform, a bacteria that originates from animal waste, than the permit allows was discharged into public waterways.

"This letter, from groups that repeatedly attack agricultural companies and farmers, contains false allegations and is without merit,"Keira Lombardo, Smithfield's Chief Administrative Officer said in an emailed statement. "We remain focused on providing safe, affordable food while pursuing our ambitious sustainability goals from coast to coast."

According the FTC’s policy statement on deception, “deception” is defined as “involving a material representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances.”

A claim, even if literally true, can still be a deceptive practice under the FTC Act if its implications deceive or mislead consumers.

The 47-page complaint goes on to detailSmithfield’s history of violating environmental laws and adoption of factory farm practices that underscore the meat processor’s practices as “quintessentially unsustainable,” despite marketing efforts that purport a company culture of environmental stewardship and a “guarantee [of the] highest environmental standards,” in the production process.

Petitioners askthat the FTC require Smithfield to remove the alleged misleading marketing claims, enjoin it from making similar claims in the future, distribute corrective statements in all media where the alleged misleading marketing claims were distributed and impose “all other penalties as are just and proper.”

Smithfield, Inc. is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group. The complaint was filed by Washington, D.C.-based Food & Water Watch on behalf of nine advocacy groups focused on protecting the environment,including Dakota Rural Action.

Smithfield Foods is seen on Thursday, April 16, 2020 in Sioux Falls, S.D. The meatpacking plant was, at an early point in the pandemic, the nation’s largest hot spot for COVID-19.