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Dead Pigs in Polish CAFO

This is a reprint from the Chicago Tribune about a village just west of Poznan in western Poland:

Village in Poland clashes with U.S. pork giant

                    America's top hog producer wants to create `the Iowa of Europe';
residents gag on transformation

                    By Tom Hundley
                    Tribune foreign correspondent
                    Published February 7, 2005

WIECKOWICE, Poland -- The front gate is padlocked. A sign says "No Entry." Another warns "Health Control Project." A smaller sign with the company's name, Animex S.A., reveals little.

Peering through the gate, you glimpse a military watchtower and a few crumbling barns left over from this place's previous life as a communist-era collective farm. There are no people, no signs of life, no sounds.

Animex is the Polish subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the largest hog producer and pork processor in the United States, but residents of this small village in western Poland had no clue about what they were in for until a mountain of pig manure began growing about 100 yards from the local elementary school.

The youngsters gagged and their parents fumed, but it appears that Smithfield's industrial-scale "piglet nursery" is here to stay.

Using Animex and other front companies to skirt Polish laws that prohibit foreign ownership of agricultural lands, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods has become a major player in Poland. It operates 29 farms, slaughtering 1.3 million hogs a year, about 5 percent of Poland's total production. More important, its operations in Poland give it a base in the European Union.

Soon after Smithfield's outspoken president, Joseph Luter III, first cast an eye toward Poland in 1998, he told National Hog Farmer magazine he had a notion of making it "the Iowa of Europe."

That is not necessarily good news for Poland. Smithfield has a less than sterling environmental record. In 1997 it was fined $12.6 million for thousands of violations in Virginia. Its slaughterhouse operations in North Carolina have caused huge fish kills in local rivers. The state recently declared a moratorium on new hog factories.

Another negative is Smithfield's size, which gives it the ability to influence market prices. That generally has been to the detriment of individual farmers, and it is one reason that Iowa and several other states in the Midwest have passed laws restricting the practices of the factory farms, forcing them to move on to friendlier environments in Texas, Oklahoma and Utah.

Animal-rights organizations also have faulted Smithfield and others for their treatment of pigs.

The Animex pig factory site in Wieckowice was a state dairy farm that provided more than 100 jobs to local residents during the communist era.

It was the village's main employer, but it withered in the new market economy and by the time it was sold to Animex in the early 1990s, it had only 10 workers.

After it was taken over by Smithfield, Animex built half a dozen new barns but gave local authorities little indication of its plans, said Edmund Pawolek, a local activist. The first truckload of piglets arrived in the dead of night, he said. The number would quickly grow to 12,000.

It's easy to understand Poland's appeal to the agribusiness multinationals. Land is cheap, labor costs are low, environmental laws are lax and fines for violators are laughably small. Surveys on political corruption generally rank Poland among the EU's worst offenders.

Most people do not want a hog factory in their neighborhood because it generates tons of manure filled with harmful chemicals. One way of disposing of the manure is to mix it with straw and silo it, and then spread it on fields. Another is to let the liquid slurry accumulate in toxic lagoons. Either way, it smells awful.

School can't open windows

In Wieckowice, where the pig farm and the village of 700 sit cheek by jowl, Animex decided to pile the manure close to the elementary school. That caused some children to faint or vomit. After residents raised a stink about the stench, Animex moved the manure mountain to the far end of its property, about a mile from a pristine lake that is part of a nature reserve. Children who swam in the lake developed eye infections. Other residents said the water smelled odd.

"At the school, they still can't open the windows. During the warm weather, my daughter complains of dizziness," said Basia Nowak, the mother of a 9-year-old.

"The great irony is that we moved here from the city to find a better quality of life, but our move coincided with the arrival of Smithfield," she said. "We feel kind of cheated."

Dennis Treacy, Smithfield's vice president for environmental, community and governmental affairs, said that the company has been responsive to the complaints and that a new manure-management plan is in place.

"We're trying to be a good neighbor, which is sometimes frustrating because of the way we are seen," Treacy said in a phone interview from Virginia. "It's easy for people to portray Smithfield as large, cantankerous and even bad."

As a goodwill gesture to Wieckowice, the company offered 10,000 zlotys (about $2,500) to buy new windows for the school.

Residents refused the offer. Instead they have tried to organize against Smithfield and block further expansion.  But thus far they have little to show for it other than a thick stack of incriminating environmental reports.

"We feel pretty powerless against a big company like Smithfield," said Pawolek, who heads the local group.

Marek Beer, the regional director of environment and agriculture, said he has no doubt that the industrial pig farms are harming the environment.

"The problem here is that from the legal standpoint, Smithfield doesn't break any laws. They meet the standards and we can't discriminate against them," he said.

"Smithfield is a very rich company. They have very good legal assistance. If we get in a legal battle with them, we lose," he said.

From Smithfield's perspective, the company has invested more than $56 million in the Polish economy and introduced modern technology to an agricultural sector in which it is not uncommon to see a horse-drawn plow. From the Polish government's perspective, any investment in the agricultural sector, which employs a staggering 25 percent of the county's workforce, is welcome.

But Smithfield's investment has brought no benefits to Wieckowice.

A family from outside the area has been contracted to run the farm.

"It's a factory," Pawolek said. "It's a matter of pushing buttons."

No one in the village knows the family's name or where they live. One local has been hired as a night watchman. Unemployment in the village is about 40 percent.

The entry of Smithfield and other big industrial hog producers into the Polish market has resulted in overproduction and a sharp drop in hog prices. That is bad for local farmers, but good for Smithfield because it lowers the cost of the raw material but does not affect the price of bacon in the supermarket.

In addition to the farms it owns, Smithfield has contracted with about 1,500 local farmers across Poland to raise pigs. Under that arrangement, Smithfield provides the pigs and the feed; the farmer provides the labor and the land.

`Serfdom on our own land'

"This is serfdom on our own land," said Stanislaw Szala, a small-scale pig farmer and an outspoken critic of Smithfield.

Local critics have not been allowed inside the farm in Wieckowice, but activists--among them Robert Kennedy Jr., who as head of an environmental group Riverkeeper has mounted a crusade against Smithfield--have scaled the fences at other Smithfield facilities in Poland and were dismayed by what they found.

"Five thousand squealing pigs were crammed into strawless compartments inside the recently opened pig factory near the town of Szczecinek in the northwestern Polish province Zachodnio-Pomorskie," Kennedy wrote in a recent report for "The Ecologist" an environmental newsletter.

"Back outside, effluent from cement cesspits had over-flowed sending a small stream of brown, stinking liquid into the lake below, which had then frozen over. In a large plastic bin we found 20 dead pigs," Kennedy wrote.

Treacy, the Smithfield vice president, denied any inhumane treatment.

"We just don't allow people to mistreat animals in our system," he said.

Smithfield is suing Kennedy for slander in Polish courts.

Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune
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20 February 2005