Almira Tanner

Published on:

July 2, 2022

The largest pig slaughterhouse in California is shutting down.

Here's what this could mean.

On June 9th, 2022, Smithfield Foods announced that they would be shutting down their infamous Farmer John slaughterhouse in Vernon, California. 

I almost didn’t believe the news when I first saw it. I have spent many hours camped outside that slaughterhouse, protesting and holding vigil for the thousands of pigs who are killed there each week. The Save Movement has had a consistent presence outside the facility for years, regularly bringing out 100+ activists to bear witness and provide the pigs with water and compassion as they approach their final moments. If you had asked any of us when we thought this place might shut down, I doubt anyone would have said 2023. 

Activists at a multi-day occupation outside Farmer John slaughterhouse in 2020

Smithfield announced that the closure was due to the rising costs of business in California. California is generally an expensive state to do anything, but I believe at least a small part of that cost is us activists. The passing of Prop 12 in 2018, which is set to go into effect this year provided it is not overturned by the Supreme Court, makes it illegal to sell the flesh of pigs, or from the offspring of pigs, who were kept in gestation crates (other than in the 5 days preceding giving birth and a few other exceptions). This was a huge blow to the “pork” industry, specifically Smithfield, which claims that less than 20% of some of its operations are compliant with these new regulations. 

Investigations and other direct actions have also put pressure on Smithfield. In September 2020, DxE activists infiltrated Farmer John and obtained footage from the kill floor for the first time ever. Activists also attempted to rescue a pig from the slaughter line, whom they named Greta. In the days following this released footage and attempted rescue, hundreds converged on the slaughterhouse for a multi-day occupation and a lockdown in which dozens locked themselves to the gas chambers and the entrance gates, temporarily halting the slaughter process. Additional activists dropped a massive Right to Rescue banner from the roof of the facility. 

Activists locked down outside the Farmer John slaughterhouse entrance

Farmer John primarily kills pigs from Smithfield’s massive factory farms in California, Arizona and Utah. In the days that followed their first announcement, they made an even more shocking one: they would be massively scaling back their West Coast farms, reducing the size of their Utah “Circle 4” farm by 2/3rds and possibly closing their Arizona and California farms completely.

If Circle 4 sounds familiar, it might be because it is the site of one of DxE’s most highly-publicized investigations. In 2017, five activists investigated this massive facility and rescued two piglets, Lily and Lizzie. They published their findings, dubbed Operation Deathstar, in the New York Times. Understandably, Smithfield wasn’t too happy. What followed was a series of events too complicated and absurd for this blog, but it involved felony charges, a RICO case, and an FBI hunt for the missing piglets. Four years on, two defendants - Wayne Hsiung and Paul Darwin Picklesimer - and a handful of felony charges remain, and Lily and Lizzie are doing great. Trial dates are set for September 9th-16th in Beaver County, Utah.

It’s fascinating to me that my two friends will be standing trial for investigating a pig farm that is largely closing down over the next six months. How this will affect the case is yet to be seen. The town of Beaver had to declare an economic emergency due to the number of jobs that will be lost, which could turn the jury pool against Smithfield for treating them as so disposable, or against the defendants for pushing for places like Circle 4 to shut down. 

I can’t predict what will happen, but here are a few key points I’d like to highlight in the wake of this news:

  • Smithfield says they are shifting their West Coast operations to the Midwest, which has led some folks to not see this news as a victory. I want to push back on that. Opening a slaughterhouse or expanding one is hard. Communities do not want these places in their backyards, and community organizations in the Midwest have successfully prevented slaughterhouses from opening in recent years. It’s a lot easier to prevent a new slaughterhouse from being built than it is to shut one down, and there’s no guarantee for Smithfield that they will be able to massively expand their operations in the Midwest. Not to mention, all this costs money, and reducing their profit is always a win. And we just need to celebrate victories when they come, even if they’re not perfect.
  • Smithfield is encouraging some of their workers to move to the Midwest and take up a job in one of their other factory farms or slaughterhouses. A recent article about Smithfield’s Sioux Falls slaughterhouse shows what these workers have to look forward to: “ An employee was placed on a seven-day suspension for refusing to make Gatorade [...] on the hog kill floor. The union says this is an inherently unsanitary practice but is done in order to keep employees hydrated, due to the temperature on the floor.” It will be up to us to elevate these stories to ensure that Smithfield is seen not as a benevolent provider of jobs, but as the exploiter of workers that they are. 
  • We must stay vigilant for any potential sale of these properties to other animal exploiting corporations. And work to ensure that any prospective buyers see the giant headache of animal rights activists as a turn off for taking over Smithfield’s business. This is also a prime reason why we need a factory farm and slaughterhouse moratorium in California, so that as these massive facilities shut down, no new ones can take their place, and we can work towards transitioning to a just, plant-based food system. 
  • Smithfield treats everyone and everything as disposable. They will shut down these facilities and leave town without a care for the devastation they leave behind. I wonder what they will do with the manure lagoons and polluted waterways that will stain Utah well into the future. Will they pay to clean up the LA river that they’ve been polluting for years? Will they work to find sanctuary homes for any remaining pigs? Will they pay for workers to get retraining and find meaningful and well-paying jobs? A likely no to all those questions. We must actively work to hold Smithfield accountable to pay for these crimes. 

The upcoming trial in Utah is an incredible confluence of all these all these threads coming together. This is a vulnerable time for Smithfield and we’re about to bring 200 people right to the heart of their Deathstar. Now is our chance to hold them accountable and expose their cruelty and corruption for the world to see. Please join us in Utah and be a part of this unfolding story!

A giant Right to Rescue banner hanging from the roof of the slaughterhouse