Opinion: Underbelly of Illinois pork production in spotlight but nothing likely to change

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Photo by Flickr user United Soybean Board

Hogs outside. The Chicago Tribune recently conducted an investigation into the Illinois pork industry.

Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

The Illinois Pork Producers Association is livid with the Chicago Tribune because of the newspaper’s investigative series looking at how the Illinois pork industry works. Not once but twice, a few days apart, the IPPA and its president, Bob Frase, sent out an email blast to journalists and columnists around the state, myself included, informing the Fourth Estate that:

Our efforts were to provide the writers from the Chicago Tribune accurate information about what is happening in Illinois’ pork industry and the dedication and passion our producers demonstrate every day on their farms. We are disappointed that our voice was not heard and that the promised balance was not conveyed to their readers.

Evidently, the IPPA expected a rosy coronation of fluff gushing over the “PORK THE OTHER WHITE MEAT” crowd, but got instead something closer to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a whistle-blowing expose of the meat-packing industry that in part contributed to the Pure Food and Drug Act  and the Meat Inspection Act.

Much to the displeasure of the IPPA, the Tribune reported to its readers that:

— Loopholes in Illinois state laws have promoted an explosion in the number and size of large-scale hog confinement operations, and the state has rubber stamped new facilities despite loud vocal opposition.

— Illinois does little to investigate animal cruelty.

— Contract hog farming can be physically punishing, low-paying work.

— Illinois’ Livestock Management Facilities Act is a mostly toothless law giving investigators few options to keep confinement operators accountable for handling manure.

— Unlike many other states, Illinois refuses Freedom of Information requests for the release of even basic information on the state’s large-scale confinement operations, citing USDA rules protecting the privacy of farmers. By contrast Minnesota, Iowa and North Carolina post such facts on the Internet.

— Illinois Livestock Development Group’s Nic Anderson, the point person for increasing confinement operations, has not been forthright in identifying himself at public hearings, and he personally believes those who raise objections over building new large scale pig pens are pawns of the anti-confinement crowd.

Most of this is not news to anyone who has ever reported on Illinois agriculture, but the public now is much more interested in where its food comes from and how it is produced.

Need some examples?

How about the ongoing controversy surrounding genetically modified organism labels.

Or the debate over calling food products “natural”.

Or the public demand for free-range chickens and cageless eggs.

That’s why the IPPA is up in arms. Because until now it has largely had its way — relatively weak state laws, sympathetic county lawmakers and a lack of transparency.

I suppose the Chicago Tribune’s reporting could turn over the pork producing apple cart, but probably only if a huge grass-roots up-swelling hits the IPPA and pork producers directly in the pocket book. Governance in Illinois’ current politically hostile climate is an unlikely answer.

Remember: This is Illinois, where a huge ongoing battle between Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan and Republican Governor Bruce Rauner will come to head in the 2018 governor’s election.

Neither Madigan nor Rauner have shown much inclination to roll up their sleeves on agricultural issues.

Without the public demanding more accountability on farming in general (and pork in particular), I expect the IPPA will continue to have it their way on large-scale hog confinement, the Chicago Tribune’s revelations notwithstanding.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For the past 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.


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