More than NASCAR, bluegrass, or even grits, barbecue is ubiquitous in the Carolinas. Sentiments in the tomato vs. mustard vs. vinegar debate run as deep as political rivalries, but few disagree that among Southern foods, pulled pork is king.
Charleston's barbecue offerings include every available style, but in the last few years they've come to share a common denominator. Virtually every bite of pig at our local barbecue joints was raised in a factory farm.
The horrors of raising animals in factories has been well-documented, including a Dec. 14, 2006 Rolling Stone story called "Boss Hog." In 2005, industrial pig-farming conglomerate Smithfield Foods produced 27 million hogs, or as writer Jeff Tietz put it, "the weight equivalent of butchering and boxing the entire human populations" of America's 32 largest cities. Between 1990 and 2005, North Carolina's pig production shifted from 27,000 independent farms to 2,200 hog factories, 1,600 of those owned by Smithfield.
When Smithfield began its N.C. infiltration, the Coastal Conservation League entered into its first major legal battle in an effort to bar large-scale hog operations from entering South Carolina. "It's kind of like Wal-Mart," explains CCL Program Director Nancy Vinson. "They compete by using very poor growing conditions for the animals, just pump them full of hormones and antibiotics, and cram them in where they can't even turn around in their cages. They're able to outcompete and drive out the small farmers."
In 1996, after a year of lobbying and nail-biting votes, the CCL succeeded in passing what they consider "one of the most protective of water quality hog farming laws in the country." Further regulations in 1998 and 2002 have hammed up the restrictions. Although there are no large-scale industrial hog farming operations in S.C., the factory system's dominance of the N.C. industry has been sufficient to force many of our state's independent pig farmers out of business.
"I used to take my truck and trailer and within an hour and a half come back with a load of pigs," says Frank Marvin, the proprietor of Marvin's Meats in Hollywood since 1960. "Now I would have to drive four hours each way to find suitable pigs." He's dedicated to providing what he feels is a quality pig, at the right price. These days that's no longer available close to home.
Like Marvin, it wasn't long ago that Winningham Farms in Ridgeville, S.C., bought the pigs that they slaughter and process from local sources. "We used to go to the market in Holly Hill," says Maxine Winningham. "All the local farmers took their pigs. There was one in Walterboro and one in Orangeburg." It's been four years since the last of those markets closed down, and the Winninghams now get their pigs from North Carolina. "The corporations outcompete and drive out the small farmers," says CCL's Vinson.
Small businesses like JB's Smoke Shack and Charleston Bay Gourmet Catering often go to Burbage's Meatpacking in Ravenel in an effort to keep it local. In these factory days, however, nearly all roads lead to Smithfield. Burbage's buys their hogs from Raben's Livestock in Loris, near Conway.
On the phone, L.C. Raben is very hesitant to say anything negative about Smithfield. "We are a market for Smithfield to market their hogs. We're in cahoots with them," he says. Raben's, operating since 1974, has in the last three years shifted their pig source from 60 small farmers to contracting with Smithfield. Pork travels from a Smithfield factory to Raben's to Burbage's to the local barbecue joint.
Chad Truesdale, the executive director of the S.C. Pork Board, explains that the transition to factory farming has some benefits for the farmer. "It's not necessarily that they (small farmers) got bought out," he says. "You choose to grow for Smithfield. There's advantages both ways. You don't have some worries, like feed worries." He says that there's still some independent producers, mostly in the Upstate, but that the remaining farmers "have to market their pork a little differently."
Rolling Stone's recent piece describes in gruesome detail the environmental, animal welfare, and local quality of life impacts of factory pig farming. Smithfield alone generates six billion pounds of pig feces a year. Stored in toxic "lagoons" that also house the remains of dead pigs, there are stories of the occasional worker who falls into these cesspools perishing almost instantly. The toxic sludge can burn to the touch. "Most Americans won't even work at (the factories)," says CCL's Vinson. "It's totally poor Mexicans without other options because it's extremely dangerous and really hazardous."
After Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, the waste from the lagoons killed off millions of fish in the Pamlico Sound's tributary rivers. Swimming and fishing, once commonplace on the Neuse and Pamlico, are no longer prudent activities.
When hurricanes aren't available to distribute the effluent, it's pumped from the lagoons onto neighboring fields. People unlucky enough to live in the vicinity have developed bronchitis, heart palpitations, and brain damage. "In several counties you can't drink the groundwater anywhere because they were overapplying waste to the fields," says Vinson.
The negative exposure from such a widely distributed publication as Rolling Stone left Smithfield "justifiably livid." "It was one of the worst examples of irresponsible journalism that we have seen in a long, long time," reads their official response. "Unfortunately they decided to discard the facts in favor of perpetuating a fabricated stereotype." The EPA and USDA, under our current administration, have praised Smithfield's environmental efforts, which the company touts as proof of their responsibility. The response does not, however, seek to negate claims about people's health problems, the heavy use of immune boosting drugs, or the post-Floyd destruction.
As most of South Carolina's small pig farmers have gradually gone out of business or entered into contractual agreements with corporations, farmers who specialize in a niche or gourmet market have been the ones to survive. Just a few miles outside of Columbia, Emile DeFelice runs the thriving, independent Caw Caw Creek Farm. He raises heirloom breeds, including the Ossabaw variety that developed on Georgia's coastal islands during the days of Spanish conquistadors. The organic and free-range pigs "have only one bad day," says CCL's Vinson.
"It differentiates my product from others on the marketplace, and it's valuable for our genetic heritage," says DeFelice. "I try to get the most 'pig-ness' out of the pig that I can."
His Charleston customers include restaurants Carolina's, FIG, and McCrady's, but happy pigs aren't cheap.
Because of the cost and quantity needed, it's infeasible for the many area barbecue joints to buy a responsibly raised pig. Chains like Sticky Fingers, Jim 'N Nicks, and Shane's Rib Shack go through distributors that source from SYSCO or U.S. Food Service. When their pork's not from Smithfield, it's from Hormel or Tyson -- essentially no different in the factory production style. For the lunch stop, mom-and-pop barbecue joints in town, quality local pigs no longer appear to be available at an affordable price.
The shift from farms to factories certainly has not slowed the popularity of pork. "We've sold more pigs every year for the last 10 to 15 years," says Frank Marvin. "I guess people are cooking more pigs; standing around drinking beer, telling lies while they're cooking pigs."
A decade ago, when the CCL led the fight to keep hog farms out of South Carolina, current Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers sat on DHEC's board of stakeholders reviewing the process, and according to the CCL, did not vocally support any regulation of the hog industry. Smithfield has literally built factories along the states' border, and would undoubtedly love the opportunity to expand physically where their product already controls the market. North Carolina currently raises 10 million pigs annually, while we produce only 319,0000.
Barbecue is indeed king in the south, but factory farming has shaped it into a whole new kingdom, one where eating a cultural staple means supporting the degradation of the land and waterways of our neighbor to the north. A pulled pork platter still looks and tastes the same, but there's a new dark side to the other white meat.