Smithfield is the country’s largest pork producer — and one of the biggest industrial polluters. But it doesn’t want you to think of it that way. Instead, the company likes to promote a conscientious, sustainable, family-farmer image, summed up with a simple catchphrase: “Good Food. Responsibly.”

In reality, the corporate giant relies on a sprawling network of polluting factory farms and slaughterhouses, responsible for widespread pollution of our air and water. And one of Smithfield’s most aggressive clean image initiatives relies on — if you can believe it — massive, leaky lagoons of pig manure.

That yawning gap between the company’s carefully crafted image and its record of environmental degradation is why Food & Water Watch, joined by several other farming and environmental groups, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over Smithfield’s deceptive and misleading advertising.

Smithfield tells consumers that its products are “Sustainable from Farm to Fork,” with marketing materials featuring sunny, bucolic farms. Smithfield’s Facebook page insists that “environmental stewardship is a key focus for everyone at Smithfield Foods.”

The facts say otherwise.

Smithfield is the third-largest water polluter in the country. In 2019, the company was issued at least 66 notices of violations of environmental protection laws.

That’s especially true in North Carolina, where earlier this year state regulators called out the company over massive spills of hog waste. The company’s waste mismanagement — from spills and water contamination to the intentional spraying of manure — have led hundreds of local residents to join nuisance lawsuits, leading to tens of millions of dollars in jury awards against Smithfield.

Smithfield’s pig poop problem is staggering — its facilities create an estimated 19 million tons of the stuff every year. But instead of cleaning up after itself, the company (like other factory farm corporate giants) is trying to sell the idea that their massive lagoons of pig manure aren’t a pollution problem —  they’re actually a clean source of “renewable” energy.

Come again?

Smithfield’s huge lagoons of manure release large quantities of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. These methane emissions are a result of how factory farms manage animal waste. More sustainable farming practices don’t have this problem.

But instead of cleaning up their act, these giant corporations want to profit from it. The idea is that a machine called a “digester” can capture a lagoon’s methane emissions, which can then be refined and re-branded as “renewable” natural gas.

For one thing, Smithfield’s digester projects are essentially gas refineries. So they’re also sources of dangerous air pollutants in places already overburdened with other sources of pollution. For another, the digesters are expensive and prone to explosions and spills. And the gas pipelines they’d feed often leak methane themselves.

Even if the scheme actually works, the poop problem doesn’t disappear. In fact, the waste products left over after the digestion process can be even more environmentally hazardous than the original manure.

Finally, burning factory farm biogas releases harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ammonia, and sulfur dioxide into the air.

What we have, when all is said and done, is not a solution. It’s a coverup.

A profitable company like Smithfield should clean up its act. In fact, the company agreed to improve its handling of pig waste in North Carolina 20 years ago, but very little has changed. Promoting so-called biogas digesters is just another way to expand and entrench their factory farm model, which puts a squeeze on small farms and inflicts pollution on their neighbors.

Smithfield seems to think it can slap on a sustainability slogan and sell consumers a fairy tale about “renewable gas.” For the sake of small family farms, local residents, and truly sustainable farming methods, we need to put a stop to this corporate charade.

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Tyler Lobdell

Tyler Lobdell is a staff attorney at the national environmental group Food & Water Watch.

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