Pork is the third most popular meat in the United States after chicken meat and beef. In 2020, U.S. Americans consumed 52.1 pounds of pork per capita, accounting for almost a quarter of their average annual meat consumption.
Following China, the U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of pigs. The U.S. pork industry is not evenly distributed but concentrated on a small number of states and counties in the Midwest and eastern North Carolina.
More than 98 percent of farmed pigs in the U.S. are raised on factory farms and many are concentrated in a handful of the top pork producing states. The intensification of pork production increases the profits of a few mega-corporations at high costs to animals, consumers, workers, adjacent communities, and planetary health.
Pork Industry Size And Value
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 129.9 million farmed pigs were slaughtered for food in the U.S. in 2019. The pork industry in the U.S. is currently estimated at a $19 billion market size, comprising 26,310 businesses and 53,236 employees.
During the last three decades, the U.S. has become one of the world’s main exporters of pork meat. Between 2014 and 2019, the pork industry sold an average of 22 percent of U.S. pork production—the equivalent of more than 1 out of 5 pigs—to international buyers. Pork exports continue to rise. In 2019, the value of U.S. pork exports reached a record $7 billion, and in 2020 a record 29 percent—the equivalent of almost 1 out of 3 pigs—of pork production was exported through September.
Who Is the Largest Pork Producer in the U.S.?
The largest pork producer in the U.S. is Smithfield Foods, a wholly-owned subsidiary of WH Group of China, formerly known as the Shuanghui Group. Based out of Smithfield, Virginia, Smithfield Foods has 55,000 employees, 40,000 in the U.S. and 15,000 in Europe. In 2019, Smithfield Foods generated $16 billion in sales.
Smithfield Foods consists of 530 company-owned and 2,100 contract farms in 15 states and produces nearly 18 million pigs annually. Sixty-five percent of farms owned by Smithfield Foods—203 and 139, respectively—are located in North Carolina and Missouri.
What Are the Top 5 Pork Producing States?
The top five states pork producing states in the U.S. are Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois, and Indiana. During 2020, these five states housed almost 70 percent of the 71.25 million pigs being raised for slaughter in the U.S. at any given point in time.
The top five U.S. states when it comes to pig breeding are Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri. During 2020, these five states housed 54 percent of the 6.37 million female pigs kept for breeding in the U.S. at any given point in time.
The five states where most pigs are slaughtered are Iowa, North Carolina, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri. In 2020, only five slaughterhouses based in these five states—Smithfield in Tar Heel, North Carolina, Triumph in St. Joseph, Missouri, JBS in Worthington, Minnesota, JBS in Marshalltown, Iowa, and JBS in Beardstown, Illinois—had the capacity to slaughter 33 million pigs annually, about one-quarter of all pigs slaughtered in the U.S. in 2019.
Which State Produces the Most Pork?
The top pork producing U.S. state is Iowa. In 2020, pork producers based in Iowa raised a third of the country’s pigs on 5,418 pig farms. At least 69 percent of pigs raised in Iowa are kept in farming operations with 5,000 or more pigs. Farms with more than 5,000 pigs comprise 20 percent of all pig farms based in Iowa. Five counties in Iowa, Washington, Sioux, Lyon, Hamilton, and Plymouth, hold 25 percent of the state’s farmed pig population. In 2019, Iowa slaughtered 39 million pigs—almost a third of all pigs slaughtered nationwide during that year.
How Many Pork Producers Are in the U.S.?
There are an estimated 60,000 pork producers in the U.S, a number that has fallen by more than 8000 percent from the 4.9 million U.S. pork operations recorded in 1920. Due to the intensification of pork farming, the U.S.’ 40 largest pig producers now own about two-thirds of female pigs kept for breeding.
In 2019, the 11 largest pork producing companies in the U.S. were:
Smithfield Foods Inc.: 1,241,000 sows
Triumph Foods: 487,200 sows
Seaboard Foods: 340,000 sows
Pipestone Veterinary Services: 251,000 sows
Iowa Select Farms: 242,500 sows
The Maschhoffs: 196,000 sows
Prestage Farms: 185,000 sows
Carthage System: 180,000 sows
JBS: 167,500 sows
AMVC Management: 143,000 sows
Maxwell Farms: 100,000 sows
Where Are The Most Pigs?
According to the Census of Agriculture data (2017), the ten U.S. counties with the largest populations of farmed pigs are:
Duplin, North Carolina: 1,950,583 pigs
Sampson, North Carolina: 1,878,165 pigs
Washington, Iowa: 1,324,498 pigs
Sioux, Iowa: 1,220,743 pigs
Texas, Oklahoma: 1,094,823 pigs
Lyon, Iowa: 1,058,365 pigs
Hamilton, Iowa: 1,006,857 pigs
Plymouth, Iowa: 909,046 pigs
Martin, Minnesota: 824,258 pigs
Carroll, Iowa: 733,229 pigs
In the counties with the highest numbers of farmed pigs, the number of pigs ranges from 29.5 pigs per capita in Sampson, North Carolina, to almost 90 pigs per capita in Lyon, Iowa. The two counties with the highest population density of farmed pigs are Duplin, North Carolina, and Washington, Iowa, with an average of more than 2,300 pigs per square mile each. The third most densely populated county is Sampson, North Carolina with an average of almost 2,000 pigs per square mile.
Pork Production Costs
Pork production costs range from feeding, watering, housing, transporting, marketing, slaughtering, and processing pigs, including expenses for electricity, feed, additives, vaccines, labor, maintenance, rent, accounting, taxes, supplies, trucks, technological equipment, genomic selection, including frozen boar semen, and manure handling costs.
U.S. pork producers raise pigs from an average of 3.22 pounds at birth to a slaughter weight of around 280 pounds, and a producers’ profitability depends on whether they sell the body of a slaughtered pig at a higher cost than it took to breed and raise the pig for an average of five to six months. Due to varying pork and feed prices, pork production profits differ every month. In 2020, pork farmers in Iowa made a loss in eight out of twelve months, with losses as high as $23.30 for every pig sold.
In addition to the costs needed to sustain the animals, producers have to consider the high mortality rate among modern farmed pigs. Pigs who die before slaughter or are deemed unsellable for other reasons do not yield any returns for pork producers and are added on top of the costs for saleable pigs. According to Iowa State University, an estimated 30 to 35 percent—one out of three—of farmed pigs in the U.S. die before slaughter.
Pork producers increasingly need to consider potential legal costs too. Over the past years, pork producers in the U.S. faced a growing number of lawsuits by communities whose quality of life had been reduced due to the presence of a nearby pork operation. In 2020, Smithfield Food reached an undisclosed settlement with hundreds of residents of North Carolina after a judge had ruled that the company “persisted in its chosen farming practices despite its knowledge of the harms to its neighbors, exhibiting wanton or willful disregard of the neighbors’ rights to enjoyment of their property.”
Farm Characteristics Statistics
The most recent Census of Agriculture data (2017) recorded 66,439 pork farms in the U.S. 80 percent of pork farms in the U.S. keep less than 200 hundred pigs and only account for 1 percent of the total farmed pig population. 14 percent of pork farms house between 200 and 5,000 pigs, accounting for 26 percent of the total farmed pig population. Five percent of U.S. pork farms house more than 5,000 pigs yet account for 73 percent of the total population of farmed pigs.
In 2017, 12 percent of U.S. pork farms sold more than 5,000 pigs during the year. Those farms sold 94 percent of all farmed pigs and generated $23.8 billion in sales, accounting for 91 percent of total sales. Pork farms that sold fewer than 1,000 pigs accounted for more than 80 percent of pork farms yet generated only 1 percent of total sales.
In 2017, 86 percent of farms in the U.S. were independent pork producers, selling 34 percent of pigs. 14 percent of U.S. pork farms were run by farmers under contract by pork production companies, selling 66 percent of pigs.
Swine Production Disease Risks
The production of pig meat is linked to a range of disease risks. Due to the intensification of animal agriculture, pork production disease risks are rising as growing numbers of pigs are kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Farmed pigs may legally travel up to 36 hours before slaughter, and 99 percent of commercial pigs are affected by inbreeding. Low genetic diversity and high levels of stress further compromise farmed pigs’ immune systems and make them susceptible to infections.
Infected pork can contain bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Yersinia, bacteria that cause diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and other symptoms. Due to the high rate of contaminated pork, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises against washing raw pork to avoid spreading bacteria to surfaces, utensils, and other foods. The CDC also warns that undercooked or unrefrigerated pork can lead to bacterial infection.
When pigs are infected with trichinella spiralis, a worm species, the consumption of their meat can lead to trichinosis or trichinellosis. Trichinosis causes abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, fever, chills, muscle soreness, headaches, and eye swelling, among other symptoms.
In the U.S., consumers might be further at risk due to a change in food inspection policy. Slaughtered pigs in the U.S. are inspected by federal inspectors from the Department of Animal Agriculture (USDA). In 2019, the USDA both reduced the number of trained food inspectors in meat plants and eliminated the slaughter line speed limit for pigs, which means that plants can slaughter pigs at any speed they choose. The new policy leaves an estimated 2.6 seconds for food inspectors to inspect an entire pig for signs of disease and contamination.
Frontline pork production work involves the slaughtering and processing of thousands of intelligent beings a day, many of whom are fighting for their lives. As a consequence, pork production work constitutes one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., endangering workers’ health both physically and psychologically. Pork production workers are often members of vulnerable groups, including minorities, undocumented immigrants, refugees, prisoners, and rural communities who work in pork production due to a lack of better job prospects. According to a recent study, Black, Latino, and Asian workers, who represent less than 29 percent of all U.S. workers, make up almost 70 percent of frontline workers in meat processing plants.
Pork production workers have one the highest rates of workplace injury of all manufacturing industries in the U.S. and are three times more likely than average workers to experience serious injuries. According to a 2017 study, 27 factory farm workers are hospitalized every day in the U.S. because of amputations and other workplace injuries.
Due to workers’ constant exposure to chemicals and pathogens, pork production workers are also at a high risk of diseases such as hepatitis and respiratory problems, including lung cancer. According to the Irish Health and Safety Authority, 70 to 90 percent of pig farm dust is biologically active, which means that the air is laden with microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi along with their organic compounds such as endotoxins.
Pork production workers are at a higher risk of contracting zoonotic pathogens that can jump from pigs to humans. Diseases associated with direct or indirect contact with pigs are ringworm, E. coli, erysipelas, leptospirosis, streptococcosis, campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, balantidiasis, dermatophytosis, erysipelas, leptospirosis, streptococcosis, and swine influenza.
Swine influenza, or swine flu, is a respiratory disease caused by type A influenza viruses. Swine influenza regularly causes outbreaks in pigs and can be transmitted to humans in close contact with infected pigs, including pork production workers. Swine flu caused the 2009 swine flu pandemic and was associated with the 1918 pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide. Even pork producers acknowledge that swine flu is the most potentially dangerous zoonotic disease linked to pork production. While swine flu rarely infects humans, the risk of a successful zoonotic spillover from pigs to humans rises the longer humans raise large numbers of pigs in the crowded, unsanitary, and globally connected conditions prevalent in intensive animal agriculture.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, meat plant workers have proven to be disproportionately vulnerable to infection with the novel pathogen due to structural racism endemic to meatpacking plants, with management failing to provide sick leave and other essential protection measures, including PPE and social distancing, to workers. A 2020 study estimates that COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants were responsible for nearly 8 percent of all cases in the U.S. during the onset of the pandemic. In January 2021, the Food & Environment Reporting Network reported that 53,846 meatpacking workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at 569 U.S. meatpacking plants, and 270 workers have died.
Environmental Impacts of Pig Factory Farming
Pig factory farming has a range of negative environmental impacts. As early as 2006, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identified animal agriculture as “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems.”
Intensive pig farms, or so-called Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), confine thousands of pigs in small areas, leading to high amounts of feces and urine polluting the air and water around the building. Pigs excrete an average of 11 pounds of manure every day—ten times the amount compared to humans. Consequently, the waste products of a CAFO that houses 5,000 pigs is comparable to a town that houses 50,000 humans. In North Carolina alone, pig farms generated an estimated 15.5 million tons of pig manure every year.
Pig urine, excrements, and other body fluids in U.S. states that use a “lagoon and sprayfield” system are transported to giant lagoons. In the lagoons, the waste starts to break down and emit toxic fumes. To prevent the pigs inside CAFOs from breathing the toxic air, giant ventilators blow the fumes away from the building into the surrounding area. When the lagoons reach maximum capacity, the waste products are liquified and sprayed on fields and other surfaces. A 2017 scientific study indicated that living near a CAFO severely impacts human health, intensifying higher rates of mortality, hospitalization, anemia, kidney disease, infectious diseases, and low birth weight.
Hog waste releases a range of hazardous chemicals into the air, such as ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, methane, antibiotic residues, and pathogenic bacteria. Waste stored in lagoons leaches into the groundwater and soil, leading to soil degradation and polluting local water supply nitrates, hormones, antibiotics, and bacteria. Natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes regularly hit CAFOs, with large amounts of waste spreading into the environment. Even a decade after Hurricane Floyd caused lagoons at 46 CAFOs in North Carolina to spill, a study by the National Institutes of Health identified high concentrations of fecal bacteria in the water near the lagoons.
In addition to soil, water, and air pollution, pig farming is a resource-intensive way of producing food. Pigs require feed, water, and other natural resources to grow to slaughter weight. Pork has a low energy efficiency of roughly 9 percent, which means that nine in ten calories used during pork production get lost during the conversion of feed to pig meat.
How You Can Help
You can help take a stand against the negative impact pig farming and other types of animal agriculture have on workers, communities, pigs, and environmental health by no longer consuming pork and other animal products. Animal protein is not essential to human health and can be substituted with a range of plant-based proteins. Also, a growing number of companies are offering pork alternatives such as plant-based bacon, sausages, and chorizo.
Over the last decades, the U.S. pork industry has become highly concentrated on a small number of states and dominated by a few powerful corporations who exploit millions of animals and thousands of vulnerable workers for profit. The intensification of pig farming has created a hazardous, financially unstable, and disease-ridden industry that facilitates an ongoing pandemic while risking the emergence of future ones. Studies have shown pigs to be highly intelligent animals with distinct personalities who enjoy playing and solving problems. Instead of keeping the exploitative system of pork production going, we need to transition to safer and more compassionate sources of food.
Caroline is a freelance journalist focused on the intersection of animal advocacy, climate change, and plant-based innovations.