This has been a rotten Christmas season for the American pork conglomerate Smithfield Foods.
Last week the Humane Society of the United States released a grisly report and undercover video on the disgusting treatment of pregnant sows at one of its industrial swine facilities in Virginia. And this week, Russia announced it will not buy pork products from the company's Smithfield, VA plant, because they are tainted with "residue and pathogen issues."
Pig producers who sell meat to Russia must wean their animals off antibiotics at least two weeks prior to slaughter (Japan requires a four-week flush-out period) and certify that their products contain no residue from the tetracycline antibiotic group, and no signs of generic Salmonella or Listeria monocytogenes, a highly virulent pathogen that kills up to one-third of the people infected and can also cause miscarriages.
On Monday Russia announced that, effective December 31st, it will no longer permit the import of pork products from the Smithfield plant in Virginia, as well as Tyson Foods' Waterloo, Iowa plant and Farmland Foods' Monmouth, Illinois plant.
It was a blow to the US pork export industry, which is still reeling from the swine flu disaster that wounded exports. In March of this year, Russia agreed to accept US pork again, as long as it was certified as free from the aforementioned drugs and pathogens.
It's not the first time a foreign country rejected US meat because of concerns over contaminants. For example, a truckload of beef was turned away at the Mexican border when inspectors found levels of copper (heavy metals are added to animal feed to prevent intestinal parasites) far in excess of Mexican safety standards. The meat was turned back and sold to consumers in the United States, where there are no standards for copper in beef.
Which begs the question, especially in this season of carnivorous indulgence: What do the Russians, Japanese and Mexicans know about our meat that we don't?
Smithfield produced 27% of all US pork products in 2007 and Tyson churned out another 17%, which you might keep in mind if you are buying ham, bacon or sausage this week. The animal you are eating could well have been born in a windowless piglet factory, where his mother was held prisoner in a tiny metal crate during pregnancy, then grief stricken as her still-nursing young were yanked away, before she was artificially impregnated once again.
Your young pig was then transferred to a nursery facility -- another sealed off building crammed with thousands of animals -- before ending up at a "finishing operation," where he was raised on concrete slats over pits filled with ammonia emitting excrement, and supplied a steady diet of drugs, heavy metals and other unnatural feed additives that accelerate growth and stave off disease long enough to get him to market weight.
There is also a small chance that your hog was infected with MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), or drug-resistant staff infection. In 2005, nearly 100,000 Americans faced life threatening illness from MRSA and 18,650 died: 50 percent more than the number of AIDS death that year.
If you happen to bring infected fresh pork into your home, you really want to wipe down your work areas with extra caution, and don't expose cuts, or children, to the raw meat.
I eat very little pork. Pigs are smart and, sorry to gross you out at Christmastime, Aztec nobles once informed their nauseated Spanish captors that pork tastes just like people. They couldn't get enough of the stuff.
But this year, I think I may just get myself some pig. I recently joined the Park Slope Food Coop, which carries a limited but wonderful and not horribly expensive selection of beef, chicken and pork grown on small, independent farms in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, where animals are raised on little but grass, grubs, sunlight and fresh air, all within a three hour drive of my home.
I've been to some of these thriving family farms, and I have seen how happy, healthy, and free the animals appeared. I have been to factory farms as well, and there is little comparison.
And though my humanely raised pork could still harbor Salmonella or Listeria (always handle all raw meat carefully) the chances are less likely. And I am thrilled there is no chance that my meat will contain drugs, added heavy metals, or any other little gift courtesy of the American pharmaceutical industry.
I'm picky that way, just like Russia.
David Kirby is author of the book "Animal Factory" (2010 St. Martin's Press)