[Homestead] Megacorp, uncontrollable Smithfield runs amok in Poland as it has in the U.S.

tvoivozhd tvoivozd at infionline.net
Mon Feb 7 09:41:15 EST 2005





    



       
          

chicagotribune.com >> Local news
   
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.









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