As Farmer John Slaughterhouse Closes, Our Work Must Continue
As happy as I am to see Smithfield leave California, they should not be allowed to simply cut and run. They must adequately compensate their workers, provide appropriate care for their pigs, and clean up the damage done to the surrounding community and to the L.A. river.
A sunburn saved Wilbur’s life. He was taken to the livestock auction block to be sold for slaughter, but, fortunately for him, severe sunburn–due to lack of access to shade and mud (necessary for a pig’s wellbeing)–disqualified him from sale. Now, he will live out the rest of his days munching on his summer watermelon and enjoying the company of his new friends at Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, where I serve as the sanctuary’s Executive Director and sole veterinarian. We have many residents like Wilbur who get to live their natural lives roaming the grassy hills overlooking the vineyards of Corbett Canyon.
A similar bucolic scene depicting pigs strolling a grassy field is painted on the walls outside of the soon-to-be-shuttered Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, California. But unlike Wilbur at Happy Hen, we know that this is a fiction that the pigs entering the plant never got to experience. The closing slaughterhouse, owned by Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, also announced they would be reducing their herd sizes in Utah and Arizona. Contrary to the Farmer John imagery, these pigs are kept in industrial sheds, never able to root around in dirt, or bask in the sun eating watermelon like Wilbur and his friends enjoy doing. Sows (adult female pigs) are held in rows of gestation crates 6.5 feet long by 2.5 feet wide for weeks at a time, unable to turn around or move but for a few steps forward and backward. (A confinement practice that, in 2018, 63% of California voters deemed too cruel to allow for sale in the state–soon to be challenged in the Supreme Court.) As babies, their tails and needle teeth are cut off, and males’ testicles are removed, all without any anesthesia.
I was happy to hear of Smithfield’s plans to leave California and scale down herd sizes, not just for pigs like Wilbur, but for us as well. Slaughterhouses like Farmer John pose a substantial threat to nearby communities. These businesses prey on a labor pool of the disenfranchised and marginalized who are left to do society's dirty work– performing the unnatural task of killing for hours every day to feed the demand for ever increasing quantities of meat. They suffer high rates of repetitive stress injuries, and psychological distress as a result of their work in the most dangerous profession in the United States.
After announcing the closure of Farmer John, the worker’s union issued a statement expressing hope that another operator would take over the plant. But there is the danger that Farmer John will follow in the footsteps of Brawley Beef and the Yosemite Foods plants: Both closed and then reopened under new management, leaving workers without their union and worse off.
Vernon Chamber of Commerce President Marisa Olguin said, “Farmer John’s closure announcement represents another nail in California’s coffin, indicative of yet another prominent business set to leave the state.” This response highlights a disappointing lack of vision by community leaders who had pinned their city’s future on a stinking, exploitative, and polluting monstrosity. Are the people of Vernon merely fodder for an imperial meat grinder? Is there any business that would be declined refuge in the city of Vernon, or would they welcome with open arms a coal mine, landfill or perhaps a nuclear waste disposal site?
The business model of companies like Smithfield, which is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group, worth $24 billion, are dependent on unjustly extracting resources from not only our communities, but from U.S. taxpayers as well. They draw from a productive well of government subsidies, tapped by the most powerful and influential lobbyists in the country.
According to the new book Wastelands by Corbin Addison, the cost of raising pigs here in the U.S. is about half of what it costs to raise them in China. This is primarily due to our allowance of open manure lagoons for waste disposal. These football-field sized cesspools serve as a cheap and environmentally disastrous alternative to the “treatment facilities' ' and “biological odor control systems” China demands to protect neighbors. Residents located nearby concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the United States don’t benefit from such courtesy. Disturbingly, our CAFOs are strategically constructed near poor communities of color who lack the political power to resist their encroachment. As a result, people living in these communities suffer increased rates of negative health effects, in a population already at risk of poorer health outcomes.
As happy as I am to see Smithfield leave California, they should not be allowed to simply cut and run. They must adequately compensate their workers, provide appropriate care for their pigs, and clean up the damage done to the surrounding community and to the L.A. river. But the closure is a huge victory for not only the activists who have been protesting the slaughterhouse all these years, but for Californians as a whole. Its departure, no doubt, will be a breath of fresh air for the city of Vernon.
Dr. Sherstin Rosenberg is the veterinarian at Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, CA, and is a member of Our Honor, a non-profit organization that supports animal professionals to speak their conscience to create a more compassionate world for all species. She is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.