Global pork titan Smithfield has ranked second among food production companies on Fortune magazine’s 2013 list of “Most Admired Companies.” Before untangling how terribly strange and ironic this is, I’d like to address just what “most admired” means, and how the magazine generated this list.
According to Fortune’s website, the most-admired companies list is the “definitive report card of corporate reputations.” The magazine asked executives at the world’s biggest companies to rank their peers in nine areas — everything from “investment value to social responsibility.”
So the list is derived only from the opinions of an exclusive slice of the corporate world — not the public.
What do these corporate leaders admire?
Well, Smithfield makes piles of money as the largest of the four companies that process 66 percent of all the hogs slaughtered in the United States. It owns more pigs than the next eight biggest pork producers combined. It slaughters 26 million hogs a year. It’s the most colossal pork processor in the world, and it’s an economically and politically powerful corporation.
Smithfield is one of a small handful of companies pulling the food policy strings in our country — and the rest of the world.
How did Smithfield get so big? Because the Department of Justice rarely says no to a merger. In the 1970s, the company embarked on an aggressive strategy to buy out its competition. After buying up most of its competition locally in Virginia, Smithfield homed in on the Midwest. The real turning point came in 1987, when it embarked on a partnership with Carroll’s Foods. For the first time, Smithfield was vertically integrated: the company not only slaughtered hogs, it raised them. In 1999, Smithfield bought Carroll’s Foods outright.
As Smithfield continued to devour the competition, family farmers fought against the monopolization and the unfair contracts that accompanied the corporation’s market dominance. Labor unions exposed Smithfield’s abhorrent labor practices, such as speeding up processing lines so fast that they cause rampant injuries, and intimidating the workers who get hurt to stop them from reporting these incidents.
Workers at Smithfield’s factories face on-the-job dangers that stand out, even in the generally perilous meatpacking industry.
In the mid-2000s, Smithfield increased production at its flagship Tar Heel, North Carolina pork plant by 30,000 hogs a day. A corresponding increase in the number of workplace injuries followed.
And Smithfield’s environmental record? It’s atrocious. In 1997, the government slapped the company with one of the largest Clean Water Act fines in U.S. history for failing to install decent pollution equipment and treat its waste. Pollutants from its operations flowed into the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for more than five years. The company was fined $12.6 million, which amounted to 0.035 percent of its annual sales — chicken feed.
Smithfield has a legacy of destroying family farms, abusing workers, and devastating the environment. What’s to admire about that? Either the world’s top executives are completely out of touch or this list is a shameless exercise in worshipping the bottom line at all costs.
Maybe it’s both.