Wednesday 15 August 2008
Mircea Cotosman has cowboy manners. He directs the Romanian subsidiary of the American pig-breeding company Smithfield, located in Timisoara. Premier pork producer in the world, Smithfield established itself in Romania in 2004, by buying thirty-three farms dating from the Communist era for $200 million (147 million euros). The pork giant had intended to invest a billion dollars (737 million euros) in its farms, which already were bringing in attractive profits. The state-of-the-art Chrysler C300 that Mircea Cotosman bought himself testifies to those profits.
But the American dream took a serious hit in Timisoara when swine plague ravaged Smithfield's farms. "We have nothing to say to the press; the swine plague is under control; journalists can just publish our communiqués," Mircea Cotosman indicated: he refuses all contact with journalists after receiving his orders from the company's headquarters, located in Smithfield, Virginia.
As for obtaining access to the farms themselves, it is out of the question. Guards accompanied by bulldogs eliminate any desire to insist. "Everybody beat it," one of them insists in front of one of their farms in the village of Cenei, in western Romania. "This is private property here!"
"Our doctors have not had access to the American farms to effect routine inspections," deplores Csaba Daroczi, assistant director at the Timisoara Hygiene and Veterinary Authority. "Every time they tried, they were pushed away by the guards. Smithfield proposed that we sign an agreement that obliged us to warn them three days before each inspection. These people have never known how to communicate with the public authorities."
The swine plague epidemic, discovered August 3, revealed an embarrassing situation for the American company. Of its 33 farms, 11 had no authorization from the sanitary authorities and had to close their doors. Moreover, Smithfield lacks manpower because of its low salary policy. Four of the nine Romanian employees at the Cenei farm have left, their 500 lei (160 euros) salary inadequate to assure their everyday needs.
Cenei's inhabitants are shocked by the American company's methods. In mid-July, hundreds of carcasses of pigs killed by the heat wave were left lying around for about ten days. "We couldn't breathe any more," relates Gheorghe Olarov, an adviser at the Cenei town hall. "I live a kilometer away from the farm, and at night I had to close the windows to sleep. The Americans have made our village a hotbed of infection."
The scandal pushed Smithfield to destroy the putrefying pig carcasses. That was only the preamble to the outbreak of the virus in the Cenei farm, where its 20,000 pigs had to be slaughtered. August 7, a second outbreak was discovered at the Igris farm, situated close to the Romanian-Hungarian border. About 16,000 pigs were to undergo the same fate as those at Cenei.
Cenei's peasants, who count on pig breeding to round out their income, are affected by this crisis. "Nobody wants our pigs anymore," rages Lina Stoisin. "We work morning to evening to raise them, and we don't know what to do with them any more. I believed that the Americans were very advanced and their technologies were flawless, but they weren't able to avoid swine plague."
"We've established a crisis center to confront the problem," declared Timisoara Sub-Prefect Zoltan Marrosy. "The Smithfield farms are quarantined. The police are assuring this region's security, so as to prevent the transport of animals and stop transmission of the virus. Smithfield has behaved aggressively: we asked them to stop breeding pigs and transferring them from one farm to another, but they paid no attention to our instructions." The fine of 130,000 euros to which the American company was sentenced had no impact.
The war between the local authorities and the American company risks being very expensive for Romania. Becoming a member of the European Union January 1, the country committed itself to respecting European hygiene and veterinary norms. At the end of 2006, Bucharest had undertaken a vaccination campaign against swine plague at a cost of 45 million euros that was supposed to cover four million pigs.
The 716 infection centers of that illness inventoried in 2006 had been neutralized at the end of June, and the Romanian authorities hoped that pork exports to European Union markets could resume - a hope deferred by the Smithfield company's mistakes until pigs fly.