Federal regulation altered local ham industry forever

Published 4:45 pm Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part series on the origins of the century-old hog slaughter industry in Smithfield. (Read the first part here)

Upton Sinclair was a socialist activist who was deeply concerned about the living conditions of immigrant workers in the large cities of the United States.

Improving the plight of those workers was his goal when, in 1906, he published a novel titled “The Jungle,” describing the horrible working and living conditions immigrants were facing. Readers of the novel, however, came away with a significantly different concern. Within its pages, Sinclair described the unsanitary conditions that prevailed in the American Meat Packing Industry of the early 20th century.

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There was already a movement to bring the meat industry under federal regulation by using the Interstate Commerce Clause, and “The Jungle” served to heighten national concern over food safety. The same year Sinclair’s novel was published, Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which authorized the secretary of agriculture to inspect and condemn any meat product found to be unfit for human consumption.

The federal law contained numerous exemptions, including the slaughter of animals by the farmers who raised them. A farmer could, as Isle of Wight farmers had done for generations, slaughter hogs and sell the meat. And small packing plants such as those located in Smithfield could continue buying the carcasses of animals slaughtered on the farm, process the meat and resell it, even across state lines.

That had been the standard operating practice ever since Capt. Mallory Todd drove nails into the overhead beams of his cellar and there hung hams waiting to be shipped to far-off customers. From that modest beginning, the Smithfield Ham had grown in popularity far beyond Virginia’s borders.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, other local companies had joined the Todd family in the profitable ham-curing business. V.W. Joyner, P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Co., James Sprigg’s Smithfield Ham and Products and, in 1936, the Luter family’s Smithfield Packing Co. were all buying farm-slaughtered hogs every winter.

As far as local farmers were concerned, continued exemption from federal regulation was crucial to the partnership between local farmers and packers. The system gave farmers several prospective buyers for their slaughtered hogs and those packers had to compete for the animals they wanted.

It couldn’t last, however. The growing concern over meat safety led to the construction of federally inspected slaughterhouses, or abattoirs, across the country. It was only a matter of time before hog slaughter would fall under federal meat inspection rules and farmers would be forced to sell their hogs “on the hoof” to licensed slaughterers.

The Smithfield Times followed the unfolding story. Rarely a month passed that there wasn’t a story in the paper, usually on the front page, about some aspect of the pork industry. It was that important to the local economy.

In November 1933, the paper carried a brief story about unsuccessful efforts to feed raw soybeans to hogs to fatten them. The result, the paper reported, was “soft hogs.” Corn and other feed had to be included in the diet if the condition was to be avoided.

Another issue confronting farmers was a federal “processing tax” on slaughtered hogs. Congressman Colgate W. Darden (later to become governor) successfully fought to have the tax waived for hogs slaughtered on the farm. The tax, according to the paper, amounted to about 25% of the price of hogs.

In January 1935, a front-page story dropped the bombshell. The Smithfield Chamber of Commerce had met and discussed the inevitable introduction of federal inspection into the hog slaughter industry.

Unless a federally licensed abattoir were to be built locally, “the outlook for the Smithfield Ham is grave,” the Chamber concluded. The story didn’t spell out the danger specifically, but it can easily be deduced. If farmers were forced to sell hogs to a slaughter facility far from the town, the meat would not return to be processed in Smithfield, and the local ham industry would die.

Smithfield had once been the center of the regional peanut industry and had lost that position to Suffolk. The local paper proclaimed:

“The peanut industry has gone and marketing become very difficult … Well, the Smithfield Ham industry is on the way to the same fate unless, through some plan, government inspection can be obtained that will satisfy the cities which are the markets for the product.”

Thus, the business community saw the need for a local abattoir as vital to the community and proclaimed that farmers and citizens of the community “must get together and stay together.”

The American Legion, its commander a county farmer and hog producer, met and embraced the need for a slaughterhouse, and its members even voted to invest part of the “service certificates” (money) they had been issued for service in World War I in a local slaughter facility.

A few months later, P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Co. announced plans to build a federally inspected slaughterhouse on the north bank of the Pagan River.

With that announcement, the relationship between farmer and meat packer was about to undergo a major change.

(Read the third part here: Change comes rapidly to Smithfield)

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.