Polluting Pigs Hit With Big Penalty

polluting pigs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has been hit with lawsuits from more than 500 North Carolina residents who say their operations and manure lagoons are harming their health and lowering property values
  • In April 2018, a federal jury ruled in the favor of area residents, awarding the plaintiffs a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages; the lawsuit is the first of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown
  • In 2017, North Carolina legislators passed a law setting a cap on how much people can receive from public nuisance lawsuits; the law, which was drafted by politicians who have received donations from pork producers, will not apply to lawsuits already in progress but will significantly limit those going forward

By Dr. Mercola

People who live near industrial pig facilities, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), are bombarded with noxious smells, polluted air, and water and noise, to say nothing of their plummeting property values. The industries running these facilities often get off scot-free, destroying families' lives and finances while padding their own pockets.

In what's being described as a historic case, however, Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, has finally been taken to task — and they got their just deserts. In 2014, more than 500 North Carolina residents brought suit against the company, saying the operations and manure lagoons were harming their health and lowering property values. The lawsuit is the first of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown.

It involves 10 plaintiffs who live near the Kinlaw hog farm, a 14,000-animal facility, in Bladen County. The families owned their properties prior to the farm moving into town, and when operations started in 1995, it was all downhill from there.

WRAL news reported, "[Plaintiffs] say they can no longer use their property as they used to because of the stench from the hog waste lagoons and dead animals. They contend they're also plagued by flies and pests attracted to the farm … and that hog waste even drifts into their homes when it's sprayed onto nearby fields."1

Pork Giant Fined More Than $50 Million in Nuisance Lawsuit

In April 2018, a federal jury ruled in favor of area residents, awarding the plaintiffs a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages. Some CAFOs treat animal feces in open-air, often unlined lagoons and dispose of the waste by spraying it onto nearby fields. The creation of new CAFO lagoons and the spray systems were banned in 2007, but older farms were allowed to continue their use.

The liquefied waste often leaches into groundwater and wells, poisoning drinking water. When it's sprayed onto fields, it often runs off into waterways, where the excess nutrients lead to algae overgrowth that depletes the water of oxygen and kills fish and other marine life. According to one of the attorneys on the case, Michael Kaeske, bacteria from swine digestive systems was found coating the exterior surfaces of all 10 of the plaintiffs' homes.2

Further, while Smithfield has taken steps to curb some of the impact CAFOs have on their neighbors in other states, such as covering manure pits, this isn't the case in North Carolina, where the "lagoons" remain uncovered and the operation continues to spray urine and feces near the neighboring homes.

Wake Forest University law professor Sidney Shapiro explained in a news release that the jurors concluded "the defendant owed them [plaintiffs] a standard of care in terms of trying to minimize the odors and other undesirable fallout from their processes … Apparently the jury decided they [Smithfield] knew about and disregarded all this fallout even though they could do something positive to reduce it."3

Click here to find out why 5G wireless is NOT harmlessClick here to find out why 5G wireless is NOT harmless

Why Plaintiffs May Actually Receive Little Compensation

The favorable verdict gives hope for the many other communities rallying against the damages caused by industrial agriculture, particularly since Smithfield and other meat producers wield incredible lobbying power, making nuisance lawsuits historically difficult to win. Since the year 2000 alone, the North Carolina Pork Council has donated $90,000 to legislative candidates, according to New Food Economy, and Smithfield has already announced plans to appeal the jury's decision.4

Smithfield senior vice president of corporate affairs, Keira Lombardo, stated, "The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina's entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians,"5 but CAFOs are known to destroy communities, polluting waterways, creating toxic air pollution and sickening area residents. Property values plummet when CAFOs are built, as does the local economy.

While CAFOs often tout increased tax revenue when trying to venture into new regions, the reality is that they drain resources from the community, while purchasing supplies from outside the area and paying workers low wages, thus providing little to no economic stimulation and, in return, leaving devastating environmental damage.6 However, while the payout to plaintiffs seems large, North Carolina law reportedly limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages.

"What this means," New Food Economy reported, "is that, even though this North Carolina jury awarded the plaintiffs $5 million in compensatory damages, each individual is likely only to receive $225,000 (or triple the value of the $75,000 in compensatory damages)."7

What's more, in 2017, North Carolina legislators passed a law setting a cap on how much people can receive from public nuisance lawsuits. The bill, which was drafted by politicians who have received donations from pork producers, was vetoed by North Carolina's governor but the veto was later overruled by the Senate.

The new law will not apply to lawsuits already in progress but will significantly limit those going forward. WRAL reported, "Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, a recipient of campaign contributions from hog farmers, pushed to make the law retroactive, which would have limited damages in these cases as well. But that part of the proposal was voted down when other lawmakers questioned its constitutionality."8

Life Near Hog CAFOs Described as a 'Nightmare'

Even at the full $50 million verdict, it's hardly a slap on the wrist for Smithfield. According to the most recent census of agriculture data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. hog and pig industry had annual sales of $22.5 billion in 2012. Further, while family and individually owned farms made up 83 percent of pig operations, they accounted for just 41 percent of sales. Corporations, which own just 8 percent of pig farms, accounted for 34 percent of sales.

For the people whose once-idyllic rural homes become the unwitting neighbors to hog CAFOs, their "American Dream" often gets turned into a nightmare. Alex Formuzis, senior vice president, communications and strategic campaigns for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), wrote of the reality of living near a CAFO:9

"The smell from the manure and ammonia plume dangling above your property is so strong it often triggers vomiting, nausea, and lung and eye irritation. The tap water could very well contain traces of the offending and dangerous swine waste, too, forcing you to buy and drink bottled water. The waste saturates your property and builds up along the exterior of the house, attracting droves of flies, mosquitoes, rats and snakes.

Depression sets in as you and your family face the fact you've become prisoners in your own home. A home you own, pay taxes on, and had hoped would be a safe and comfortable place to live, raise a family and grow old in. This is a slice of the American dream turned into a nightmare, courtesy of the industrial swine operation that borders your property."

In North Carolina, an EWG analysis revealed that 160,000 residents live within half a mile of a pig or poultry farm.10 Further, court documents used in the plaintiffs' case against Smithfield revealed the results of a study that detected the presence of pig-manure DNA on the exterior walls of 14 out of 17 homes near the company's CAFOs.

Hog feces DNA particles were also found in the air, at levels of up to hundreds of thousands of particles. Shane Rogers, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) environmental engineer, who published the report, told The Guardian, "Considering the facts, it is far more likely than not that hog feces also gets inside clients' homes where they live and where they eat."11

Will the Verdict Be a Game Changer for North Carolina CAFOs?

It remains to be seen whether the North Carolina verdict will stand, and whether the next test case will see the same outcome. This first case involved plaintiffs chosen by the plaintiffs' attorneys, whereas the next case involves parties chosen by Smithfield attorneys.

Drew Kershen, an emeritus law professor at the University of Oklahoma, told The Journal Gazette, "If you got a second test case, chosen by the defense attorney, which turns out to have damages like this, then you would really have to say, my goodness these are really significant claims against the industry in North Carolina."12

Still, many are hopeful that the verdict signals a new era in agriculture for the state. In Indy Week, Michelle Nowlin, the supervising attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, stated:13

"[The verdict is] a significant victory for the community members who live next to these factory feedlots. They have suffered indescribable insults, not just from the immediate impacts of the feedlots themselves, but also from decades of government failure to come to their aid. Litigation was their last chance for justice, and this verdict and award will help them move forward.

This verdict proves, once and for all, that 'cheap meat' is a myth. Someone pays the price of production, and for far too long, that burden has been on the rural communities that are home to North Carolina's factory farms. This verdict forces the industry to internalize and reckon with those costs.

I'm hopeful this decisive victory will be a game-changer in North Carolina and force the industry to modernize its waste-treatment, to the benefit of rural communities, the environment and the farmers themselves."

Even better would be a change away from the CAFO model entirely and toward the much more sustainable, humane and healthier grass fed model. I encourage you to either buy direct from a trusted farm or look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, a much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed meat and dairy.14

Pastured Pork Is Better

The AGA standard allows for greater transparency and conformity15 and is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed meat and dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.

An AGA logo on a product lets you know the animals were fed a lifetime diet of 100 percent forage, were raised on pasture (not in confinement) and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics.16 In addition, the AGA logo on your meat and dairy ensures the animals were born and raised on American family farms.17

While you may most often hear about grass fed beef or dairy, pastured pork is also available, and the AGA pastured pork standards include a forage-based diet derived from pasture, animal health and welfare, no antibiotics and no added growth hormones. Whether you do so for ethical, environmental or health reasons — or all of the above — I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area.

If you wouldn't want to visit the farm personally — or live near it — it's a major red flag that you shouldn't get your meat from it either. If you don't have small farms in your area, you can often find free-ranging, pastured meat, organically fed and locally marketed, at farmers markets and food co-ops.