The evil corporation has been a mainstay in fiction for years. From Weyland-Yutani to Tyrell Corporation to Cyberdyne Systems, writers and filmmakers alike have imagined the worst in man and then surrounded him with a grinning, soulless board of directors. It’s easy to distance ourselves from these creations, to envision the wealth of safeguards in place that are designed to protect us from the malevolent creep of the rich and twisted. But sometimes safeguards fail. Sometimes our protections can be overcome, bypassed, purchased.
And sometimes the darkest fiction sheds light upon a darker truth.
It’s no great secret that a company doesn’t get to the top of the Fortune 500 without a few skeletons in their closet. A disgruntled employee or a maligned customer is the norm for any company, but some corporations, in their years of operation, have run out of closet space. There are those that have left their skeletons to bake upon the streets and others that have buried them early in child-sized coffins.
It was Upton Sinclair who said, “So from the top to bottom the place is simply a seething cauldron of jealousies and hatreds; there is no loyalty or decency anywhere about it, there is no place in it where a man counted for anything against a dollar.” And it was Sinclair who wrote of workers tumbling into rendering tanks and being ground to meat along with the animals. But it is our world that frames his fiction and true to those words — written over 100 years ago — there exist today those companies whose insidious nature, whose corrosive and acidic policy, whose very existence begs the casual witness to recoil and question the authenticity of the world in which they exist.
So, from toxic airborne effluvia in North Carolina to Latin American death concentrates, here is a list of four corporate plots darker than fiction.
4 Nestle’s Baby Formula Scandal
In the 2010 film Repo Men, a corporation by the name of The Union provides ailing clients with life-saving bio-mechanical organ replacements, effectively giving these customers a new lease on life. The problem arises when one understands that that last bit is literal. The Union doesn’t sell organs; they rent them out and reclaim them when the bills go unpaid.
In the late 70s and early 80s, a boycott spread across America against the Nestlé corporation over its marketing of breast milk formulas in Third World countries. The International Baby Food Action Network claimed that Nestlé would provide samples of their formulas to hospitals and maternity wards. After mothers left the hospitals, the samples were no longer provided and new mothers would find that they had ceased lactating due to their reliance on formula after the child’s birth.
According to various sources, the following transpired: as they couldn’t afford Nestlé’s formula, many mothers were forced into an impossible situation. Some lacked the means necessary to prepare the formula, even more resorted to diluting or using less formula than necessary. Those who were able to acquire and prepare the formula often did so with contaminated water, which led to disease, diarrhea, and malnutrition in their infants. An estimate by Dr. Stephen Joseph placed the cost of reliance on breast milk formulas at over one million infant deaths each year.
3 Smithfield Foods’ Unique Waste Management
In the 1997 film Good Burger, fast food giant Mondo Burger’s manager, Kurt Bozwell — furious over the success of Good Burger’s secret sauce — busts into his competition’s restaurant after hours to poison their ingredients. The message is simple: get ahead, no matter the cost and if you have a problem, give it to someone else.
Smithfield Foods was founded in 1936 by Joseph W. Luter but things really start to get interesting in the mid-90s after Smithfield became a vertically-integrated company. At that time, it is alleged that Smithfield began cramming as many pigs as they could fit into barns outfitted with slatted floors that allowed their collective waste to be flushed into 30-foot deep, open-air “lagoons” the size of two football fields. And what does one do with 18,000 cubic feet of feces, urine, blood, afterbirth and residual chemical waste?
Give it to someone else.
In 2013, nearly 600 residents of North Carolina stated their intent to file suit against Smithfield Foods. In the filing they complain about Smithfield’s storage and spraying of liquid waste onto neighboring property. The waste is known to contain pathogens, heavy metals and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It contains hydrogen sulfide and ammonia and, according to nearly all who live and breathe in its wake, smells exactly like you would expect.
2 Bayer Products Linked To Spread Of HIV
In the 2009 film Daybreakers, pharmaceutical company Bromley Marks rations a quickly dwindling supply of human blood to a population of vampires while working on a blood substitute. When head hematologist Edward Dalton discovers a cure for vampirism, representatives from Bromley Marks make it plainly clear that they are not interested in curing individuals and unwilling to forego the potential profits a blood substitute promises.
In the mid-80s, Cutter Biological — a division of Bayer — faced an intimidating pile of evidence that indicated the use of one of their popular hemophilia medications, Factor VIII concentrate, carried a substantial risk of infection with the HIV virus. According to various epidemiologists, the disease was being spread through the blood products, which were made from giant pools of donated plasma, some of which had evidently been donated by infected donors.
The company ceased selling the medication… in the United States. It was reported that, for over a year, Cutter Biological continued to sell the dangerous medication in Asia and Latin America in an attempt to mitigate the costs involved with maintaining and disposing of a large stock of deadly, unsalable product.
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, more than 100 hemophiliacs — many now deceased — contracted HIV from the medication.
1 Chiquita’s Aggressive “Negotiation” Tactics
In the wildly popular Breaking Bad, fast food chicken joint Los Pollos Hermanos serves as a convenient front for franchisee Gustavo Fring’s methamphetamine empire. Engaging in poolside deals with the Juarez cartel, Fring forges accords, spurs wars, murders, and manipulates in order to protect his empire.
It all started in 1928, when the United Fruit Company (UFC) was in a bind. The Company — today known as Chiquita Brands International — had an increasingly dissatisfied, striking workforce demanding eight-hour work days and six-day work weeks. Various sources report that it turned to the U.S government, which threatened to send the Marine Corps if the Colombian government stood by. So, one fateful Sunday in December, while the workers and their wives were gathered in their Sunday best, a regiment of the Bogotan army opened fire on the unsuspecting crowd.
In the early 50s, the UFC found itself in another bind when liberal Guatemalan President Árbenz Guzmán sought to redistribute unused, prime farmland to the country’s peasants. The problem was that many of these lands — 42 percent of the arable land in the country, in fact — belonged to the UFC in the form of reserved assets and redistribution threatened their agricultural monopoly.
Again, the country sought the aid of the U.S. government, convincing the president to act “diplomatically, economically, and militarily” against what they purported to be a pro-Soviet threat. The result was a thirty-six-year civil war, ending in the country becoming what we now call a “banana republic.”
After all this turmoil, Chiquita was again in the public eye in 2007 after it was revealed that senior executives within the company had approved and concealed payments of roughly $1.7 million to the United Self-Defense Fund of Colombia, an organization that the U.S. designated as a terrorist group in 2001. The company reached a settlement with the Justice Department, agreeing to pay $25 million to resolve the dispute.