Big factory pig farms are some of America's worst polluters

In Rolling Stone, Jeff Tietz has an investigative piece on how Smithfield Foods, America's largest hog slaughterer, circumvents law, pollutes like crazy, and creates antibiotic and vaccine-laden pork products that feed our country.

Smithfield's holding ponds — the company calls them lagoons — cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.

Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-shit bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the shit out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres — thousands of football fields — into shallow mud puddles of pig shit. Tree branches drip with pig shit.

Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing shit to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.

The lagoons themselves are so viscous and venomous that if someone falls in it is foolish to try to save him. A few years ago, a truck driver in Oklahoma was transferring pig shit to a lagoon when he and his truck went over the side. It took almost three weeks to recover his body. In 1992, when a worker making repairs to a lagoon in Minnesota began to choke to death on the fumes, another worker dived in after him, and they died the same death. In another instance, a worker who was repairing a lagoon in Michigan was overcome by the fumes and fell in. His fifteen-year-old nephew dived in to save him but was overcome, the worker's cousin went in to save the teenager but was overcome, the worker's older brother dived in to save them but was overcome, and then the worker's father dived in. They all died in pig shit.

Link to "Boss Hog," by Jeff Tietz. Photo by (thanks, Sputnik!)

Previously on BoingBoing:

  • Time-lapse video of decomposing pigletsReader comments:
  • Cowicide says,

    (Unintentional?) Smithfield Ham Pron?

    Check out the screenshot in my post. It's from this part of the Smithfield website here: Link.

    Damn, now that's some juicy ham pron if I've ever seen it…. I just want to stick my tongue right in the midd… (OK… I'll stop).

    Cropped thumbnail of above, here's a JPEG link to full screenshot.

  • Daddymem says,

    Here's an employee site regarding Smithfield Farms' labor practices: Link.

  • Kelly says,

    B..b..but Smithfield can't possibly be a polluter. They have a web page that shows they got an Environmental President's Award award! Link.

  • numlok says,

    I dig your post about Pig farms and Smithfield Foods in particular. I only want to ad that if you really want to turn people off to their products, I can think of no better way than their own (vintage drive-in) advertising. Enjoy! Video Link.

  • Manuel says,

    Here's a link to the pig farm in google maps for the site referenced in the "Pork's Dirty Secret" article.

    [Ed note: those big, pink "lakes" in that map detail above, next to what look like housing for the pigs? Filled with pigshit.]

  • Mark says,

    If you go through the Smithfield site, they link to They said they were involved with this for the last three years. However if this is going on for the last several years, where are the result from before? There is no link to previous years result. Also will the actual data be made public or will it get filtered?

  • Paul Jones says,

    Just saw your pig postings about the trouble Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC as I got back from the Science Bloggers Conference where folks from OnlineNewsHour began their talk with a bit from their 2004 show called "Pigs and Politics":

    A snip from the transcript:

    "North Carolina's ten million hogs produce twice as much feces and urine as the populations of the cities of Los Angeles, New York and Chicago combined. Industrial farms, most with thousands of hogs each, store the waste in open-air pits, called lagoons. They spray the waste, untreated, as manure on adjacent fields."


  • John Alderman says,

    Look at these crazy pictures of a festival in Taiwan where it appears they sacrifice 2,000 pigs: Link.

  • Ian Hogben says,

    I was reading about the (horrific) pig farm article and couldn't believe there was no mention of the unintentional goatse of the farm's aerial map. From the user comment "Here's a link to the pig farm in google maps for the site referenced in the "Pork's Dirty Secret" article.", the photo is SO TOTALLY goatse it's hilarious.

  • Nate says,

    *sigh* I've never been so conflicted about eating meat after reading
    that post. So I hope Choppy the two faced pig either brings a smile
    or a WTF. Reminds me a bit of Cy the kitten. Link.

  • Andrea James says,

    Speaking of the poor pigs, ever seen a state of the art Jarvis bung dropper? Link. Be sure to watch the vid at upper right: Link. Not to be confused with a bung cleaner: Link. Or bung ring expander: Link. Or lung gun: Link. Or spinal cord remover: Link. Other fun links for kill floors and carcass prep: Link.

    Go veggie! I attached a pic of the best way to taste a pig.

  • UPDATE: Many more of you wrote in with strong opinions on pigshit, economic activism, and braised tofurkey. Your comments after the jump.

  • Tony Sanfilippo says,

    I think there are much more effective responses to these practices [than going vegetarian]. Markets effect change much more efficiently than criticism. Whether you intended it or not I think the post probably converted more than one more person to vegetarianism. And I would argue that is like convincing someone not to vote because of your disgust with the current administration.

    Let me recommend an excellent book by one of the most thoughtful writers on this subject I've ever come across. Michael Pollan is a naturalist not an activist, who's very interested in domestication and its consequences. His current book is titled The Omnivore's Dilemma. You can see him discuss the book with Bill Maher on the Amazon Fishbowl here: Link.

    I also recommend his previous book, The Botany of Desire, which looks at the relationship between four domesticated plants and the humans who cultivate them. After reading it, a vegetarian might come to the conclusion that even eating plants can have some serious ethical obstacles. His investigation of modern potato production is absolutely astonishing.

    Ultimately, a careful reader might conclude that the best course of action is not eliminating foods from your diet, but to change how you acquire your food. That will do much more to change the practices of producers like Tyson, Smithfield, and others than opting out.

  • Che says,

    Tony Sanfilippo had the following two comments I found interesting:

    "Markets effect change much more efficiently than criticism…. And I would argue that is like convincing someone not to vote because of your disgust with the current administration."

    By not buying a product you are impacting the market and the voter comparison is really not a good analogy. When someone decides not to vote, the simple do nothing. When someone decides to quit eating meat for ethical reasons, they don't simply stop eating. Instead they spend money on other foods. Presumably on foods that more consistent with that person's personal beliefs.

    "the best course of action is not eliminating foods from your diet, but to change how you acquire your food."

    Eliminating a food from your diet changes how you acquire your food by default.

    On a side note, I have been a vegan for ten years now, and suggest the following cookbooks as I can't imagine life with out them: Vegan with a Vengeance by Chandra Moskowitz – It as a bit of a dingy punk rock theme, but the food is amazing. And How it all Vegan, The Garden of Vegan, and La Dolce Vegan — All of those are by Sarah Kramer.

  • Jamie McCarthy says,

    Was buying a Model T merely a "criticism" of buggy-whip makers? No.
    The demand for a different product was a powerful market force that
    ultimately put them out of business.

    And going vegan isn't just a criticism of the pig industry. It
    affects that market in the most direct, effective, damaging way. If
    one's goal is to stop supporting something, what participation could
    be less than zero?

    If someone's jonesing for the taste of pig so much they need a fix
    from other sources, that's their problem. Yes, when Spike got a
    soul, he had to find less-evil substitutes for his addiction to
    blood, with all the associated drama. But you and I aren't vampires,
    so that's not something we have to deal with. Going veg skips the
    emo hand-wringing by just not being evil in the first place.

    And it can't be analogous to refusing to vote; it is a vote. The
    way you vote with your wallet is to put your money somewhere else.

    (As long as people are recommending cookbooks, I'll nominate Joanne
    Stepaniak's The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, and Donna Klein's The
    Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen

  • Alexis Grant says,

    must respectfully disagree with Tony Sanfilippo's comment that
    vegetarianism is not the most effective response to these horrible

    The reason that factory farms are successful is the economies of
    scale, and the economies of scale are only possible because we in the
    US consume so much meat per person. To opt entirely out of
    contributing to that total is a highly effective response to the
    issue. It's also cheaper and may be healthier (check out John Robbins'
    Diet for a New America, if you haven't yet: Link).

    As Tony says, it would be effective also to source any animal products
    you eat more carefully. But in practice, this is a much harder balance
    to achieve. Explaining my vegetarianism to others is easy; disdaining
    their meat dishes not because I don't eat meat, but because their meat
    isn't properly sourced, is not going to come across as easily or well.
    And sourcing good meat is very difficult, as Michael Pollan describes
    in one of the books Tony recommends, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's not
    enough to look for "organic" and "free range" on the package.

    Also, people often ask why I'm vegetarian; that gives me the
    opportunity to share my reasoning with them, which in my mind is the
    time we can actually make a difference. One person opting out doesn't
    make much of a difference to Tyson and the other large companies, but
    when we start to share our feelings with those around us, we can make
    a much bigger difference.

  • Tony Sanfilippo says,

    Consuming sustainably raised meat is obviously a much more direct way to effect the market than to send your money to the vegetable market. To revisit the democracy analogy, it would be like moving to Canada and voting for a PM who opposes the current administration, rather than staying here and voting against it. Sure it will have an effect, but how direct? My dollars spent on local sustainable farms have exponentially more impact on meat production than those who never purchase meat.

    Everyday at work I bring in my own lunch. It's typically made up of a burger from a local cattlewoman who raises grass-fed Scottish Longhorns, a salad made up of greens I've grown or purchased at the farmers market, and cheese or yogurt from a local organic dairy farm. I have two colleagues in the office who are vegetarian. Their typical lunch is a salad from the local Mini-mart or one of those vegetarian subs from Subway. Who's doing more to reform food production?

    Almost every vegetarian I know has little if any interest in where their vegetables come from or the impact their food acquisitions have, but instead feel that the most important choice is a choice against meat, rather than for sustainable farms. I'm concerned they are becoming part of the problem. Choosing vegetables exclusively over meat is no solution. Buying a salad from a gas station or chain restaurant seems much more problematic to me than enjoying a free-range burger, chicken leg, or sausage. The best and most successful sustainable farms raise both vegetables and livestock. Chickens in your vegetables groom for pests and their poop is high in nitrogen, pigs are extreamly efficient at processing almost all the waste a sustainable farm produces, and both pigs and cows provide rich manure replacing the need for petro-based fertilizers, while effectively addressing the issue of topsoil erosion.

    I know this is much easier to do when you live in the country, as I do, and have neighbors who farm. But it isn't impossible for urban dwellers. Yes, it takes effort and expense, but the repercussions are enormous. If you can't do it all yourself, delegate and cooperate. Become active in your local food co-op. Visit a farm and establish a relationship. Use Craigslist to organize food buying groups and find sustainable markets. Network. This is exactly the kind of challenge the Internet seems tailored to address. Disintermediate food production.

    One of the most important points I've taken from Michael Pollan's writing is that once we domesticated an organism, we have a responsibility to it. I would argue that most vegetarians are neglecting that responsibility. Not just to the animals that we've domesticated, but also to the plants. Vegetarianism's logical conclusion is the extinction of these animal species and that seems like an unacceptable shirking of our responsibility. The goal is not to end farming. The goal is to change it. Becoming a vegetarian changes you significantly but does little for these animals or to change these practices. It's simply choosing not to vote or to vote somewhere else.

  • Chris of the vegan food blog says,

    Kudos on your decision to give veganism a try. I went to grad school at NC State and one of the first big news items after I moved to Raleigh was the rupture of a factory pig farm's waste lagoon that resulted in many miles of streams and rivers being polluted and millions of fish being killed. Around that time the local paper also ran an extensive investigative piece on the hog industry's many environmental woes in coastal North Carolina. I gave up eating pork right then and there and gradually became vegan over the course of many years following that. Oh yeah, that was in 1994. Interesting to finally see a piece in the national media about this problem that's been going on for so many years now.

  • David L. says,

    Paul Stamets, author of Mycellium Running, and owner of FungiPerfecti has a proven method to clean up the fetid farm lagoons using mycellium infused straw and wood chip filters. The fungi literally eat the pathogens and filter the water. There is a more detailed explanation in his book, but the website gives an overview. Similar strategies can be employed for forest restoration, erosion control, toxic waste clean-up and other bioremediations. Totally brilliant, cheap, and proven solutions to some of the mess that has been made of this planet. His method was also presented at the 2006 Bioneers conference.

  • Matti Laakso says,

    I've been on a 90% veggie diet for about five years: Basically, all I had to do to drop 30lbs of undesired body mass was to skip all the crappy microwave meals, hamburgers and kebabs I used to have for lunch at work. All the processed crap meat basically. (so be careful with your experimenting, you just might vanish entirely and where'd we be then?!)

    I say 90% because I didn't turn into a veggie wholeheartedly: I simply dropped all the crap meat, biowaste, pork-surgical leftovers, scraps from the grinder whatever your want call it, the "Mystery Meat".

    Instead, I stick to one meal of real meat per week. There is no more ethical source of protein than real game (un-endangered species, rare, thank you very much). I mean, considering the inherent cruelty of the so-called nature, a high-powered rifle round is way more "humane" way for a deer to go than rotting way in a ditch after being hit by a car.

    Never mention the cattle and their "quality" of life. Torture all the way, and then they blame you for the largest greenhouse emissions on the planet. Ain't easy being a cow.

    On the other hand, soybean production (for cattle feed, but also for us eco-suckers) is the excuse #1 for cutting down rainforests. Down with big tobacco – up with industrial-scale veganism!

    ( In 2038 a ban was placed on distributing soybean products. 15 years too late, said the critics, but there was a whole generation raised on the stuff, so LGM-Wallmart was forced to restart production of soy-flavoured geneered pork. Meanwhile, the better-off had no qualms dialing Kobe Beef on their Sony PortAssemblers. )