Big Willy, a four-month-old spotted hog who lives on a farm here, has but a month or two remaining before his owner takes him down the long, lonesome highway to Waterloo where Willy will meet a man called the "pig-sticker."
There, at the Rath Packing Plant, Big Willy will undergo a sudden transformation from pig to pork. The hog owes so much to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for his good health, fine food and comfortable accommodations here on Steve Mosley's hog farm will, in death, come even closer to USDA.
USDA meat inspectors will run their fingers through his entrails looking for disease. He will be injected with chemicals that USDA researchers are testing as possible causes of cancer for pork eaters. And, after he becomes pork chops and lunchmeat, USDA consumer advocates in Wasington will warn the American people that too much of Big Willy, especially his fat, can cause heart attacks.
Big Willy, the hog, is a key to understanding the Department of Agriculture, a 126-year-old bureaucracy with 95,000 people who have such seemingly unrelated duties as disseminating food stamps, monitoring Russian grain crops and breeding hogs. There are sources of agencies in USDA that don't know much about each other, but many have an abiding interest in hogs like Big Willy.
The life and death of Big Willy points to the dissonance in a massive Washington-based bureaucracy that has spent millions of dollars to help create the current generation of 67 million super hogs, and at the same time, angers pork producers in the Midwest with warnings about the dangers of red meat and fat in the American diet.
Big Willy's home state of Iowa -- the leading hog state in the country with one-quarter of the nation's pigs -- the pork producers association can't figure out whether to curse or praise USDA policy makers in Washington.
"We get very frustrated knowing that one minute the USDA is there to help us raise hogs and the next minute they are turning around to work against us," says Lois Keaster, home enocomics consultant for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
Big Willy's life style -- the floor he walks upon, the food he eats and his very shape -- is profoundly influenced by the production-oriented side of USDA. Yet the consumer-oriented side of USDA has an equally profound influence on the death, dismemberment and distribution of this spotted hog from Hudson, Iowa.
Big Willy, who now weighs about 120 pounds and is gaining weight at the rate of 2-1/2 pounds a day, will be ready for his one-way journey to Waterloo when he reaches his market weight of 220 pounds late next month.
Moseley, the 36-year-old hog farmer who owns Big Willy and about 1,100 other hogs, will decide the precise day when Big Willy will meet the pig sticker based on the daily hog prices he hears over the radio. Those prices broadcast by virtually all Iowa radio stations, are furnished to Big Willy's owner courtesy of USDA.
The federal Livestock Marketing News, directed out of the USDA Annex on Independence Avenue in Washington, has 80 full-time reporters checking in several times a day at livestock buying centers around the country. Beginning with the 10:05 a.m. "Hog Flash," reporters in Iowa file four daily updates on hog prices. "The idea is to give the producer (hog farmer) the same feel for the market as the packing plants," says Rick Keene, a livestock reporter in Des Moines who checks the prices at the Waterloo packing plant where Big Willy is headed.
That plant might not even have been a ble to kill Willy if it were not for a federal bail-out loan last year of $4.6 million.
The loan, which was funneled through the city of Waterloo, was granted by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It was "vitally necessary" to finance updating the outmoded equipment in the 54-year-old packing plant, according to Ivan Pihl, vice-president for operations at the plant.
With the bailout and current high consumer demand for pork (hogs like Willy are selling at about $37 per hog, nearly $20 less than last year), the Rath plant has an enormous appetite for hogs.
Big Willy will check into the "hog hotel" at Rath when Moseley takes him to Waterloo. The hog hotel, a high-turnover stockyards, is the only place in the plant what can accommodate a living hog. While in the hotel, Big Willy will be checked out by a USDA meat inspector.
"That inspector has a picture in his head of a normal hog," says William Morris, the chief inspector in charge of 22 USDA inspectors at Rath. "If he sees a hog walking tippy toe or coughing, he'll take his temperature and call in the veterinarian." At least one veterinarian is on duty at the plant during the two 8-hour shifts each day when hogs are slaughtered.
The inspectors at the Rath plant in Waterloo are part of one of the federal government's largest police forces -- a Washington-controlled army of nearly 8,000 meat, poultry, vegetable, plant and grain inspectors that was marshaled back in 1906 to eliminate the meat-packing horrors that Upton Sinclair documented in his book, "The Jungle."
Big Willy, being the healthy hog that he is, should have little trouble passing that initial "anti-mortem inspection." He will then move down a chute where a packing plant employe will knock him unconscious with an electrical device that's been the subject of USDA research in Washington. While he's out cold, the "pig sticker" will cut Willy's throat with a knife and Willy will bleed to death -- painlessly -- before he can wake up.
big Willy will die at the age of six months, as do more than 60 percent of the hogs raised in the United States. It is unclear just how long Big Willy could live if he were kept on Moseley's farm. Some sows, female pigs, in Iowa have avoided the slaughter house for up to 11 years, and hog authorities say the animals may be able to live much longer.
Big Willy will join the 13 hogs, killed every working minute at the plant, which slaughters 7,500 hogs a day or about 3 percent of the 1.8 million hog slaughtered each week in the United States.
He will lose about 8 pounds of blood while being carried on a conveyor belt to a scalding tub where he will soak for several minutes in 138-degree water. Then, it's off to the de-hairing machine and 14 different stations in the plant where Big Willy's body will be shaved, scrubbed and de-toenailed. His head will be chopped off and left hanging by a strap of skin.
"At that point," says Leroy H. grittmann, plant supervisor, "the carcass is clean and ready for presenting to the government."
A federal inspector will then examine Big Willy for dirt, hair and check his lymph glands for tuberculosis lesions or signs of anthrax, an infectious disease which can be transmitted to man. Another inspector will finger Big Willy' entrails, looking for liver spots, cancer, toxic pneumonia and heart cysts.
The stripped carcass will again be inspected, stamped "USDA 186" (the plant's federal code) and graded on a USDA-established scale of 1 to 6. (The higher the number, the more fat in Big Willy.)
After the carcass cools for 24 hours at 42 degrees, Big Willy's remains will be carved into the cuts of meat that appear in grocery stores. More federal inspectors will make sure that rolled sausage has no more than 50 percent fat, that blended boneless pork has no more tha 30 percent fat and that water injected into Willy's hams constitute no more than 10 percent of the ham's weight.
"A meat inspector is just like a policeman standing on the street corner," says chief inspector Morris, who's been at the Rath plant for 32 years. "If they (Rath managers) could do something to make a little more money, they would. This is a very competitive field."
Yet, all the inspections at the Rath packing plant are routine, a routine that apparently pleased consumers because it should prevent them from buying bad, adulterated pork. It is a routine that pleases hog farmers because consumers who buy quality pork are likely to buy again.
Although Willy was raised primarily as a food product, pork producers claim that "actually the hog is man's best friend" because of the plethora of products that Willy's body will produce. Among them: bone china from Willy's bones, weed killers and crayons from his fatty acids, gloves from his skin and a possible treatment for schizophrenia from the pig hormone melatonin.
What worries hog farmers are the higher-level bureaucrats back in Washington who have raised alarms about the danger of cancer from nitrates in bacon and the danger of eating too much red meat.
Norma Jean Moseley, the wife of Big Willy's owner and a "Porkette" with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, says the two things about USDA in Washington which bug her the most are (1) Carol Tucker Foreman (USDA's chief advocate who has ordered limits on cancer-causing nitrosamines in bacon) and (2) the department's dietary guidelines (which have advised consumers to restrict their consumption of red meat and fatty cuts of meat).
"Why out somebody in the USDA who is out to hurt the hog farmer?" demands Mrs. Moseley.
The USDA's answer is that it is a "food agency," in the words of Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland. And the responsibility of a food agency is not only to help farmers produce food, but insure that that food is healthful and Americans understand, the principles of good nutrition.
The USDA has eight scientists in Pennsylvania working on ways to reduce the amount of sodium nitrate that will be injected into bacon from hogs like Big Willy. Sodium nitrate, a food additive that prevents the formation of deadly botulism toxins in cured meats and gives them their characteristic color and flavor, can produce nitrosamines -- known cancer causing agents -- when pork is cooked.
The scientists are also studying sodium nitrate itself to determine if it causes cancer. USDA's goal, according to Tom Grumbly, associate administrator of the department Food Safety Quality Service in Washinton, is to reduce nitrite in pork as much as possbile without increasing the danger of botulism.
Yet, in the meantime, meat industry lobbists and pork producers complain that consumers have been subject to USDA overkill, making them reluctant to buy pork -- especially bacon -- that lists nitrite as an ingredient.
Pork producers, who spend thousands of dollars a year trying to improve the image of pork with "Hogs Are Beautiful" T-shirts and by sending hog farmers to grocery stores, use the same argument in condemning USDA's dietary guidelines. They say there is no solid evidence showing that eating red meat like pork is any more harmful then eating low-fat meats like veal or poultry.
USDA advice on nutrition released two weeks ago in Washington backs away from earlier warnings on red meat, warning consumers instead to buy only lean meat, cut down on highly salted luncheon meats (primarily pork) and trim fat off all meat.
USDA officials don't deny that the beef and pork lobbies, which have complained angrily about red meat warnings, had some influence in the retrenchment on dietary guidelines. "This was done because we felt it was reasonable this way," says Louise Light, acting head of dietary guidelines at USDA. "But that doesn't mean some pressures weren't felt."
Big Willy's owners, as well as pork producers around the country, worry, however, that the damage has been done; that heart-attack conscious Americans will stay away from pork no matter what USDA says from now on.
Their bias is mixed with certain incredulousness that a federal department, like USDA, which has helped them produce more and better hogs, could ever interfere with selling pork products.
As one hog farmer at the recent Iowa Pork Congress remarked at a party; "Now that we've got all these hogs, wouldn't it be a shame if nobody ate pork any more?"