"Meat is a different story. Whereas thousands of U.S. vegetable farmers compete among themselves and foreign rivals for space in Wal-Mart's produce section, a precious few companies control the meat trade. Just two companies -- Smithfield and Tyson -- process 43 percent of pork consumed in the U.S. Their three largest competitors, Swift, Cargill, and Hormel, have together sewn up another 27 percent of the pork market. When players this big experience higher costs, not even a giant like Wal-Mart can say no to higher prices.
Moreover, while U.S. vegetable farmers rightly fear cheap imports from foreign competitors, the opposite holds true with meat. The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that U.S. producers will "dominate" the growing global pork market over the next decade. By 2016, the FAO predicts, nearly one of every three pounds of pork traded globally will originate in the U.S . The FAO also expects the nation's beef and poultry production to thrive in the global market.
In Iowa, the nation's leading pork-producing state, confined-hog operations churn out 50 million tons of excrement each year, the great bulk of which festers in massive lagoons, belching putrid fumes into surrounding communities and leaking into groundwater. In Hardin County, where I visited this summer, 18,000 residents live amid more than a million confined hogs and hundreds of manure lagoons. The county's once-teeming creeks and waterways have become dead zones, and an eye-stinging stench hangs in the air. It reminds you who benefits from the arrangement -- not the remaining residents or the hogs, but rather the confinement owners and the companies they work for under contract: Smithfield and its few meat-packing peers.
In North Carolina, the No. 2 hog-producing state, similar conditions hold sway. And there, just as in the "Third World," the poor pay dearest for highly profitable environmental banditry. According to a University of North Carolina study, "There are 18.9 times as many hog operations in the highest quintile of poverty as compared to the lowest." People of color get it worst of all: "The excess of hog operations is greatest in areas with both high poverty and high percentage non-whites."
Labor conditions, too, resemble those that might hold sway under a miserable dictatorship run by blinkered elites in thrall to foreign investors. In 2005, Human Rights Watch issued a blistering report on labor issues in U.S. slaughterhouses. "Meat-packing is the most dangerous factory job in America," the report declared. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies -- and the government does next to nothing." The report also documents meat-packers' heroic efforts to squash unions.
Indeed, in its anti-unionism, the meat industry takes a hint from practices used during the 1980s-era heyday of death squads in Central America. Speaking of a Smithfield plant in North Carolina, one Salvadoran worker told Human Rights Watch that, "The company has armed police walking around the plant to intimidate us ... It's especially frightening for those of us from Central America. Where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists." " (thanks rania)