Might a version of China’s 26-story, high-rise pig farm be coming soon to the U.S.?
Might a version of China’s 26-story, high-rise pig farm be coming soon to the U.S.?

China’s Smithfield Foods Pushes the EATS Act in Congress

The EATS Act is an assault on states’ rights and an invitation for China to bring its high-rise factory farms to the homeland

China’s 1.4 billion citizens consume their weight in pigs every year. 700 million animals. 192 billion pounds of pig.

In 2018, a highly contagious and deadly viral disease, African Swine Fever (ASF), invaded China’s hogs. Tens of millions of the intelligent, sensate animals died outside the walls of slaughterhouses.

China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported that the market hog numbers decreased from 321 million to 191 million by August 2019 (commercially raised pigs live just six months, so double the number of live pigs and you get the annual body count). The number of breeding sows dropped by a similar percentage — about 40% — from 31 million to 19 million.

While all of this — the routine slaughter and the deadly effects of ASF — represents an unyielding crisis for pigs, the disease’s impact on China’s food production was a crisis of a different order. China’s citizens would have to increase their intake of chicken or tofu until the pig populations rebounded.

But long before ASF hit, anticipating the kind of crisis the disease would represent, the nation’s leaders had been at work on means to secure a stable pork supply. Pandemics, drought, floods, and crop failures create uncertainty in pig production, and China’s people want nothing less than gustatory certainty.

In 2013, the Shuanghui Group, better known as the WH Group, purchased the Virginia-based Smithfield Foods for $4.72 billion. It was, at the time, the largest-ever Chinese acquisition of an American company. It also made the WH Group one of America’s largest landowners, with 146,000 acres of our homeland.

Today, Smithfield Foods controls more than a quarter of U.S. pig production. No major sector of American agriculture has anything approaching this level of Chinese-government control. Add in the 14% market share for the Brazil-based JBS and you’ll see that two foreign companies control two-fifths of U.S. pig production. The cattle, poultry, and egg industries have just a fraction of that foreign control.

Alongside the foreign acquisition was a domestic building boom. China invented the high-rise hog factory farm.

In Neixiang province, there are 21 10-story and higher pig factory farms clustered together. It looks like a massive condominium complex in New York or Los Angeles that would house tens of thousands of families. Instead, pigs are jammed shoulder to shoulder on each floor, with every level of the factory farm its own farrow-to-finish operation. Not one of these pigs will ever see a ray of sunshine or feel a breeze buffeting their coarse coats or filling their nostrils.

Consumed in extraordinary numbers, vexed by disease, and jammed in the high rises without any soil or sunlight, it’s dystopia for the pigs. And without a strong domestic animal protection movement, and without the freedom of average citizens to challenge the government, there is little resistance to this absurdly extreme version and vision of agriculture.

The EATS Act Cometh

While the Smithfield acquisition was an opportunity for China, it is a vulnerability for the United States. China now owns and controls one of the biggest meat companies in the world, and its footprint is completely within our national boundaries.

When a food crisis comes to China, is there any doubt where the pork will flow? No doubt it’d go to Beijing over Boston. Chengdu before Chicago.

Congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla,. last week said she’s seen enough. She doesn’t like our major global adversary controlling a vast amount of domestic production of U.S.-produced pork. And she really hates the EATS Act.

Last week, she and nine other arch-conservatives, including the highly visible Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, told leaders of the House Agriculture Committee that they were “gravely concerned about infiltration of American pork production by foreign adversaries, principally the CCP [Chinese Communist Party].” The lawmakers noted that the “Bank of China, with a $5 billion ‘loan,’ financed the acquisition of this one-time, legacy American-owned farm business.”

Farm-state lawmakers, who aggressively promote U.S. sales of pork to China, are the power behind the Exposing Agriculture Trade Suppression Act, or EATS Act. They are partnering with Smithfield Foods to try to pass that bill, which would “nullify any state or local law that places any kind of standard, regardless of its impact, on agricultural exchange, whether grounded on concerns about animal welfare, food safety, chemicals, agricultural pests, or worker safety,” wrote my colleague Scott Edwards, general counsel for the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action.

While its broad language would nix any state law that restricts agricultural commerce, there’s a bullseye on Proposition 12 and its political antecedent, Question 3 in Massachusetts. Those measures require minimum space allotments for pigs, laying hens, and veal calves if companies want to sell their products in those states. But the feature of Proposition 12 that most galls the Midwest lawmakers is the legal standard requiring that all pork sold in California, regardless of origin, must come from farms that give the animals the opportunity to move.

Losing in the Supreme Court and Throwing a Hail Mary in Congress  

The opponents of Prop 12 thought that the California ballot measure was doomed once the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, believing that they had a winning argument that the law violated the Dormant Commerce Clause and was an unconstitutional restriction on interstate commerce.

But the high court didn’t see it that way. In May 2023, in NPPC v. Ross, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a series of lower court rulings and said that Prop 12, and by implication Question 3, was a proper exercise of state authority. The pork producers, wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the majority opinion, “invite us to fashion two new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of States to regulate goods sold within their borders. We decline that invitation. While the Constitution addresses many weighty issues, the type of pork chops California merchants may sell is not on that list.” Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett constituted the conservative nucleus of the majority decision.

The ink wasn’t dry on the SCOTUS ruling when Kansas and Iowa lawmakers introduced EATS in Congress. But so far, it’s landed with a thud.

In a first volley, 171 House members, including five Republicans, sent a letter to the Agriculture Committee opposing the bill. Then came 30 Senators saying the same. Then 16 more Republicans in a separate House letter. And most recently, 10 conservatives, led by Rep. Luna and mostly Freedom Caucus stalwarts, weighed in, too. Other letters of opposition are being circulated.

This outpouring of opposition against the EATS Act came after the release of a new Center for a Humane Economy report on domestic and global markets for U.S.-produced pork. Well more than 40% of U.S. breeding sows are already in group housing systems rather than gestation crates, and the Center’s market analysis shows that California and Massachusetts together will require just 6% of total U.S. pork production to come from facilities that allow the sows an opportunity to lie down, stand up, and turn around. The report reveals that the industry has been in transition for more than two decades since Florida banned the use of gestation crates in 2002 and that it has existing capacity to supply gestation-crate free pork in two states.

High Standards, Not High Rises, for Pigs

Thanks to Animal Wellness Action, the Center for a Humane Economy, and other similar-minded groups, the United States is moving in a different direction than the high-rise pig factory model created by China. We are working to keep pigs on the ground, on the soil, and in spaces that, at the very least, give them some room to move.

Help us defend Prop 12 and other state-based farm animal welfare laws

After all the legal proceedings and inevitable delays, both Prop 12 and Question 3 are in effect. It’s no longer legal for a food retailer—a fast-food outlet like McDonald’s, a supermarket like Shaw’s or Wegmans, a superstore like Walmart or Costco, or a breakfast outlet like Dunkin’ Donuts—to sell whole cuts of pork in California or Massachusetts that come from pigs whose mothers were kept in extreme-confinement pre-birthing cages on a factory farm.

Many producers like Prop 12. And they abhor the EATS Act as it fosters anti-competitive practices. There are 1,350 producers and distributors listed on the California Department of Food and Agriculture website that comply with Prop 12 and are meeting demand there, including Pennsylvania-based Clemens Food Group and even big names like Tyson, Seaboard, and Hormel.

“Our farm and other Texas family-owned farms and ranches have geared up our production to meet the new and exciting market demand for our products in California,” wrote Neil Dudley, a vice president of Pederson’s Farms in central Texas, in December letters to U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn and to U.S. Rep. John Carter. “We often compete against foreign-owned (including China-owned) agribusiness corporations. California’s standards help farms like ours compete on a more level playing field against these foreign conglomerates.”

And if there is any doubt that the EATS Act is anti-family farmer, as well as extreme in its ruthless designs for animals, let’s keep one simple question in mind: Could a family farmer ever afford to build a 20-story high-rise factory farm costing a billion dollars?

If there was ever a moment of clarity about the direction of American agriculture, this is it. Do we want the EATS Act delivering economic opportunity to foreign adversaries? Or do we want the homegrown Prop 12 and Question 3, which seek to remind American consumers that sentient animals remain at the center of the enterprise of animal agriculture?

And can there be any doubt that government of China, through its surrogate corporations operating here in the United States, would wish to outsource high-rise factory farming of pigs to our country, with all of the massive waste loads, zoonotic disease threats, animal cruelty, and other externalities they spawn?

Let’s remember that in China, there are no animal welfare standards. There are no free and fair elections. There’s no long-standing non-profit advocacy focused on animal welfare there.

Why would we think Chinese-controlled, U.S.-branded agricultural companies with a stake in the ground in our homeland would act one way at home and another way here in America?

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