BY JIM MASON
Kansas City, Missouri: city of fur traffic, cattle drives, stockyards, slaughterhouses, and steakhouses, a metropolis built from the backs, blood, and bones of animals—not exactly Miami Beach for an animal activist.
In March of this year, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) held its annual meeting and trade show in Kansas City. NPPC, composed of some 100,000 pig farmers nationwide, is a lobby and promotional organization with an annual budget of $5.5 million. Last year, it aided the “pork” industry in the sale and slaughter of 97 million pigs worth $9 billion to pig farmers. Headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, NPPC is the largest agricultural “commodity” (the flesh of pigs) organization in the country and possibly the most effective.
The 1981 Pork Congress began with a flourish in Kansas City’s cavernous Convention Center. Pom-pom girls and a local high school band warmed up the audience for the Pledge to the Flag, a prayer blessing for the Pork Congress, welcome speeches by local politicians, a slick slideshow about NPPC, and, of course, the president’s message to the membership. The last consisted of much optimism about making “pork number one” and exhortations to “stick together, think big,” “follow the game plan,” “be loyal to the organization,” “put the industry and its needs above your personal problems,” and “sell hogmen everywhere on the higher purpose, the longer-range goals, the broader view.”
The next order of business before the convention centered on the competition for National Pork Queen. In a small auditorium, a dozen and half young women, daughters of pig farmers who had been state pork queens for the past year, gave “verbal presentations” before a panel of judges and a small audience of “Porkettes” (NPPC’s women’s auxiliary and volunteer promotional army).
One by one, they climbed the stage and rattled off a pitch calculated to win the hearts, minds, and stomachs of consumers over to the superior qualities of pig flesh. Each gave reams of statistics about percent of RDA and the vitamin, low fat, and cholesterol content of pork. More than one stressed the usefulness of pigs for their products—leather, medicines, etc. One informed us that John Wayne’s heart was repaired with a valve from a pig’s heart. Another based her spiel on the premise that pork is a “health food.” Another argued that factory farming systems make more efficient use of land, that they offer pigs safe, cozy quarters, and that they do, in fact, benefit the animals.”
Each contestant was asked: (1) If you were asked about the importance of government subsidies to this industry, what would your answer be? and 2) Do you feel that your role as Pork Queen is compatible with the goals of the Equal Rights Amendment? Each contestant expressed her opinions that subsidies are important for an industry that rails against “government interference,” and, yes, there is compatibility between NPPC-NPQ and ERA.
By this time, I was developing hunger pangs for a tidbit of reality so I went to the trade show where 480 exhibitors displayed their wares to some 15,000 visitors. Here, Behlen, Clay, North, Farmcraft, etc., showed the myriad varieties of farrowing stalls, cages, pens, slatted floors, feeders, tanks, pumps, ventilators, and other factory equipment. Here, Hess & Clark, Pfizer, Dow Chemical, Eland, American Cyanamid, etc., showed the myriad varieties of antibiotics, disinfectants, growth promotants, pre-mixes, and other factory drugs and supplies. But that, too, was unreal, for everything was so clean and shiny; there was no dust, no manure smell, no dank, acrid air, no shrieks of crowded pigs.
At one exhibit, people huddled around a counter chuckling over the centerfold of Playboar magazine, the sex magazine for swine breeders. I overheard one of the men tell another that a veterinarian gave the pig a shot of tranquilizer to get her to hold still for the photographer.
At a prayer breakfast, Dr. Robert Schuller of Garden Grove, California, and the impresario of television’s “Hour of Power,” offered the optimism of his “possibility thinking.” Reactionary columnist and apologist for Reaganomics George F. Will charmed a luncheon audience with cute witticisms, biased statistics, and a declaration that “military buildup is not an option; it’s necessary for survival.”
Once again in need of a fix of reality, I spent a few more hours on the trade show floor where I found that pig farmers are pessimistic because they haven’t been making enough money, and that exhibitors aren’t selling a lot of new factory machinery.
The whole affair culminated in an awards banquet at which John Block, the new Secretary of Agriculture and pig farmer, spoke. Countless plaques, certificates, and awards, as well as countless thanks and praises were delivered. Even wives and children of pork heroes were thanked and plaqued. Most important of all, apparently, was the crowning of the 1981 National Pork Queen. One of those lucky young women will get to work for the NPPC and its Porkettes for a year, serving as an educator, public relations person, communicator, good-will ambassador, and pretty face and smile. She’ll cut ribbons, give interviews on radio and television, shake hands, and travel thousands of miles for the pork industry. She’ll get a pigskin coat, a necklace, shoes, and a $3,000 scholarship from American Cyanamid.
Of course, the National Pork Producers Council’s goals and activities are no laughing matter, but some of its rituals are.
Originally published in the July/August 1981 issue of ‘Agenda’