In a David-versus-Goliath tale like this one, you could hardly hope for a more ruthless and intimidating giant than Smithfield. The company is not only the world’s largest producer of pork but also the owner of the world’s largest slaughterhouse. Located in Tar Heel, N.C., that slaughterhouse disassembles about 32,000 hogs a day. For years, the workers at the Tar Heel plant were treated almost as poorly as the hogs: Smithfield harassed union supporters, paid workers to spy on fellow workers and employed deputy sheriffs as corporate security officers who beat and arrested workers. The company originated in Smithfield, Va., during the 1930s and later became a corporate dynasty, successively led by Joseph W. Luter Sr., Joseph W. Luter Jr. and Joseph W. Luter III. It grew by pioneering industrial methods of hog production and by taking over its competitors, one by one. But when the North Carolina lawsuits were filed in 2013, Smithfield Foods was no longer an American company. Shuanghui International Holdings, a Chinese corporation now known as WH Group, had bought it the previous year, with financing from the government-owned Bank of China. The cost of raising hogs in North Carolina was about half as expensive as raising them in China — and one of the reasons, Addison explains, is that “the Chinese government doesn’t allow its hog farmers to use lagoons and spray fields.” Instead, Chinese hog operations must invest in “treatment facilities” and “biological odor control systems to protect neighbors.”
“Wastelands” is full of memorable people. An assortment of high-powered attorneys agrees to take on Smithfield, working free in return for a share of any settlement. They fly on private jets, employ focus groups, hire a videographer from National Geographic to convey the neighbors’ plight. Mona Lisa Wallace is the most sympathetic and compelling member of the legal team, brilliant, indefatigable, raised in small-town North Carolina with a working-class background, dedicated to using the courts to help victims of corporate misbehavior. Among the plaintiffs, Elsie Herring — one of 15 children, who left North Carolina for New York City and returned almost 30 years later only to find herself drenched in a misty rain of manure on a walk near her family home — stands out. As does Violet Branch, one of 11 children, who has lived for more than 70 years in the house where she was born but must endure the pollution from two waste lagoons next door. Before the lawsuit, Branch had tirelessly contacted public health officials, journalists, even the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, seeking relief from the stench. “Nothing is going to be done about this issue — nothing has been done,” she bravely testifies in court, “because the power structure in those communities is not going to allow something to be done about it.”
Smithfield unabashedly uses its power to avoid responsibility for the legal “nuisance” at issue in court. It threatens to leave the state if the lawsuits are successful. It spies on the attorneys and hires private investigators to keep tabs on the plaintiffs. It helps to create a front group, “NC Farm Families.” It works closely with the state farm bureau, chamber of commerce and Republican Party, whose members introduce bills in the legislature to protect Smithfield from liability. The odors from the company’s hog operations, one Republican legislator boasts, are the “smell of freedom.” The legislature’s only significant departure from industry-friendly policies occurred in 1997, when it passed a temporary moratorium on new hog operations — just as two were about to be built in Moore County, home to the Pinehurst resort and its legendary golf courses.
I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian. But I think the hog factories described in “Wastelands” and the similar CAFOs in other states are forms of systematic animal cruelty. They are crimes against nature. Hogs are intelligent and sensitive creatures capable of multistage reasoning like dolphins and apes, with a social structure similar to that of elephants. Hogs can recognize themselves in a mirror, differentiate one person from another, remember negative experiences. And they like to be clean. Their lives in hog factories scarcely resemble how they’ve been raised for millenniums. They arrive as small piglets, live crammed together amid one another’s filth and leave a few months later for the slaughterhouse — never having enjoyed a moment outdoors during their entire time at the shed. The foulness of these places, for the animals that live in them and the people who live near them, truly defies words.
Corban Addison hasn’t written a polemic about hog factories, like my paragraph above. He has calmly assembled a legal thriller, full of energy and compassion, that addresses issues of real importance, like the works of John Grisham and Scott Turow. Grisham wrote the foreword to this book, and in it, he says: “Beautifully written, impeccably researched, and told with the air of suspense that few writers can handle, ‘Wastelands’ is a story I wish I had written.” I agree with Grisham. But I wish that “Wastelands” were a work of dystopian science fiction, not a damning portrait of how we feed ourselves now.