Smithfield Foods

(WH Group Ltd)



Smithfield Foods is a pork producer (they sold their beef group to JBS S.A. in 2008), headquartered in Smithfield, Virginia. Their operations are vertically integrated, with Smithfield controlling all aspects of production, from conception to packing. Smithfield runs the world’s largest slaughterhouse, located in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

Smithfield was purchased in 2013 by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., then the largest pork producer in China (1). The combined company (which markets as Smithfield and many other brands around the world) is now called WH Group, and is the largest pork producer in the world. It trades as WHGLY in Hong Kong. Shuanghui’s $4.7 billion ($7.1 billion including debt) purchase of Smithfield was the biggest Chinese acquisition of a U.S. company (2, 3). The Smithfield purchase was driven by many factors, not the least of which is China’s incredible growth in demand for pork; by 2010, China consumed more pork alone than the United State’s total consumption of all meat (4). China per capita consumption of pork is the highest in the world (5). Given issues of land use and ownership, as well as severe and widespread pollution and contamination, it has been speculated that “Bagging Smithfield, in this sense, is not about getting its hogs, pork-processing technology, or even premium brand. It is really about owning access to America’s safe farmland and clean water supplies (6).[1]


Glenn Greenwald Investigation

In October 2017 the journalist Glenn Greenwald published a review of Smithfield operations in an article entitled The FBI’s Hunt for Two Missing Piglets Reveals the Federal Cover-Up of Barbaric Factory Farms. The entire report is worth reading.


Rolling Stone Investigation

In 2014, author Christopher Leonard used Tyson Foods as the frame for his book The Meat Racket, documenting how major corporations are consolidating control of all aspects of America’s food production. Leonard’s book could be seen as a direct descendant of Jeff Teitz’s 2006 investigation of Smithfield foods for Rolling Stone: “Boss Hog: The Dark Side of America’s Top Pork Producer “America’s top pork producer churns out a sea of waste that has destroyed rivers, killed millions of fish and generated one of the largest fines in EPA history. Welcome to the dark side of the other white meat.” Excerpts (taken in order from the article):

Smithfield Foods, the largest and most profitable pork processor in the world, killed 27 million hogs last year. The best estimates put Smithfield’s total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums. Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do – even if it came marginally close to that standard – it would lose money. So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield’s business model…

Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs – anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Taken together, the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs’ immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides. Without these compounds – oxytetracycline, draxxin, ceftiofur, tiamulin – diseases would likely kill them. Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they’re slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

The drugs Smithfield administers to its pigs, of course, exit its hog houses in pig shit. Industrial pig waste also contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.

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.

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…

According to the EPA, Smithfield’s largest farm-slaughterhouse operation – in Tar Heel. North Carolina – dumps more toxic waste into the nation’s water each year than all but three other industrial facilities in America. If…lagoon operators are spraying, people in hog country can’t hang laundry or sit on their porches or mow their lawns. Epidemiological studies show that those who live near hog lagoons suffer from abnormally high levels of depression, tension, anger, fatigue and confusion.

In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act – the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield’s annual sales.

The biggest spill in the history of corporate hog farming happened in 1995. The dike of a 120,000-square-foot lagoon owned by a Smithfield competitor ruptured, releasing 25.8 million gallons of effluvium into the headwaters of the New River in North Carolina. It was the biggest environmental spill in United States history, more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. The sludge was so toxic it burned your skin if you touched it, and so dense it took almost two months to make its way sixteen miles downstream to the ocean. From the headwaters to the sea, every creature living in the river was killed. Fish died by the millions.

Spills aren’t the worst thing that can happen to toxic pig waste lying exposed in fields and lagoons. Hurricanes are worse. In 1999. Hurricane Floyd washed 120,000.000 gallons of unsheltered hog waste into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers. Many of the pig-shit lagoons of eastern North Carolina were several feet underwater. Satellite photographs show a dark brown tide closing over the region’s waterways, converging on the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound and feeding itself out to sea in a long, well-defined channel. Very little freshwater marine life remained behind. Tens of thousands of drowned pigs were strewn across the land. Beaches located miles from Smithfield lagoons were slathered in feces.

In addition to such impressive disasters, corporate hog farming contributes to another form of environmental havoc: Pfiesteria piscicida, a microbe that, in its toxic form, has killed a billion fish and injured dozens of people. Nutrient-rich waste like pig shit creates the ideal environment for Pfiesteria to bloom: The microbe eats fish attracted to algae nourished by the waste. Pfiesteria is invisible and odorless – you know it by the trail of dead. The microbe degrades a fish’s skin, laying bare tissue and blood cells; it then eats its way into the fish’s body. After the 1995 spill, millions of fish developed large bleeding sores on their sides and quickly died. Fishermen found that at least one of Pfiesteria’s toxins could take flight: Breathing the air above the bloom caused severe respiratory difficulty, headaches, blurry vision and logical impairment. Some fishermen forgot how to get home; laboratory workers exposed to Pfiesteria lost the ability to solve simple math problems and dial phones: they forgot their own names. It could take weeks or months for the brain and lungs to recover.

South Carolina, having taken a good look at its neighbor’s coastal plain, has pronounced the company unwelcome in the state.


Other Investigations

PETA North Carolina Undercover Investigation, 2007

This investigation of Murphy Family Ventures, a supplier for Smithfield, showed video of: Workers grabbing injured pigs by their noses and ears, dragging them to the killing floor;

  • A farm supervisor admitting he violently beat pigs;
  • Piglets testicles being ripped out (without any anesthesia);
  • A worker gouging pigs’ eyes out.

The video also showed pigs with untreated cysts, sores, and prolapsed uteruses. Several employees were fired. The next year, six cruelty-to-animals charges were filed against one of the individuals shown in this video.

North Carolina Slaughterhouse Worker Charged With 6 Counts of Animal Cruelty,” (with link to video) Fox News.

HSUS Virginia Undercover Investigation, 2010

The investigator’s video shows:

  • Female pigs narrowly confined in gestation crates for almost their entire adult life. The crates are so small, they can barely move. Pigs are observed biting the bars (“stereotypic behaviors”) to the point where blood covered the front of their crates;
  • One pig with a basketball-sized abscess on her neck;
  • A still-living pig thrown into a dumpster;
  • Newborn piglets falling through the slats into the manure pits.

Pigs subject to abuse at Virginia factory farm, Humane Society of the United States says,” Los Angeles Times.



The Center for Media and Democracy maintains a wiki on Smithfield Foods. This covers employee and human rights issues, environmental issues, anti-trust, and lobbying. Mercy for Animals has a blog post, “This Is How Factory Farms Discriminate Against Communities of Color,” documenting, with various links, the impact of Smithfield and other companies on minority communities.

WH Group’s revenue for 2016 was US $21.5 billion, with a net profit of US $1.2 billion, up 13% over 2015 (7).

The Future

In April 2017, Smithfield announced it will explore the use of pigs for human medical purposes. These ideas include growing organs and other tissue for transplantation to humans [8].


Smithfield has generally escaped the level of undercover scrutiny faced by Tyson. The devastating impacts of Smithfield’s factory farms on the environment and on human health in the surrounding communities are much more visible and potentially more compelling to a broader audience than even the most egregious cruelty to animals. However companies like Tyson or a supplier to Walmart are more likely to be the target of an undercover investigation because the big brand name is much more media-friendly than Smithfield or JBS.

As discussed above, it has been speculated that Shuanghui purchased Smithfield to gain access to clean land and water in the U.S. Of course, this is morbidly ironic, given that Smithfield is the source of unfathomable pollution and contamination in the states where they operate.


[1] As it is likely that issues with China will become even more important going forward, a good reference is this Bloomberg analysis of meat consumption there.


May 2017