Polluting Pigs Part IV

pig CAFOs lawsuits

Story at-a-glance -

  • The second of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, wrapped up in July 2018 with a $25 million verdict against Smithfield
  • A federal jury ruled that Smithfield should pay two neighbors living near a North Carolina Smithfield contractor’s pig farm the sizable sum due to bad odors, flies and loud trucks caused by the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO)
  • The damages awarded are expected to be reduced due to a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater
  • In June 2018, North Carolina legislators passed a law restricting future nuisance lawsuits aimed at pig CAFOs; while those already filed will not be affected, future lawsuits will be nearly impossible for CAFO neighbors to file

By Dr. Mercola

The saga of polluting pigs continues, with both good and bad news. Good news first: The second of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, wrapped up in July 2018 with a $25 million verdict against Smithfield.

A federal jury ruled that Smithfield should pay two neighbors living near a North Carolina Smithfield contractor's pig farm the sizable sum due to bad odors, flies and loud trucks caused by the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).1

The case is particularly noteworthy as it involved parties chosen by Smithfield attorneys — those they believed would be hard-pressed to win the case. The couple had moved into the area after the CAFO was already in operation and did not make any official complaints before the suit was filed.2 Still, the jury ruled in their favor, as they did in the first nuisance case, which involved plaintiffs chosen by the plaintiffs' attorneys.

In that case, 10 plaintiffs who live near the Kinlaw hog farm, a 14,000-animal facility, in Bladen County, owned their properties prior to the CAFO moving into town, and since operations started in 1995 they've been plagued by the stench from pig waste lagoons and dead animals, pestered by flies, and had their homes covered with pig feces. In April 2018 a federal jury awarded the plaintiffs a collective $750,000 in compensation plus another $50 million in damages.

The favorable rulings in both cases gave hope to others living near CAFOs, which are known to seriously pollute area waterways and air, and drag down nearby property values while endangering residents' health. Unfortunately, there's a downside to the story.

North Carolina Restricts Future Nuisance Lawsuits Against CAFOs, Slashes Awarded Damages

One step forward, two steps back. About a week after the initial April 2018 ruling, a federal judge called upon a North Carolina law that limits punitive damages to no more than three times the amount of compensatory damages or $250,000, whichever is greater.

As a result, damages in the suit were reduced to $3.25 million, which means the plaintiffs, who were set to receive $5 million in compensatory damages, will each receive $325,000 instead — hardly enough to compensate them for the damages and allow them to relocate. The damages awarded in the second case are also expected to be reduced due to the cap.

Worse still, in June 2018, North Carolina legislators passed a law restricting future nuisance lawsuits aimed at pig CAFOs. While those already filed will not be affected, future lawsuits will be nearly impossible for CAFO neighbors to file.

As reported in a news release, industry supporters tried to pass the legislation off as necessary but what it really amounts to is yet another protection for industrial agriculture that comes at the expense of residents' health and well-being. For the record, WH Group, which owns Smithfield, had profits of about $1 billion in 2017. As reported in a news release:3

"The legislation was needed 'to save every farmer in this state from frivolous lawsuits,' said bill sponsor Sen. Brent Jackson, an agribusiness founder and Republican who represents three counties in what is the country's heaviest concentration of industrialized hog lots. Critics billed the legislation as an attack on private property rights in order to protect a well-heeled industry.

The law adopted over a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper will be followed by demands for similar protection by other special interests, said Republican Rep. John Blust, an attorney from suburban Greensboro. 'This is like the first domino to fall,' he said."

High on the Hog Industry

Governor Cooper vetoed the new legislation, stating, "while agriculture is vital to North Carolina's economy," so are "property rights" that "are vital to people's homes and other businesses." He continued:4

"North Carolina's nuisance laws can help allow generations of families to enjoy their homes and land without fear for their health and safety … Those same laws stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from pumping air pollution into our mountains. Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair."

Unfortunately, the veto was overridden by a 74 to 45 vote by the state's House. The so-called North Carolina Farm Act, or Senate Bill 711, states a nuisance lawsuit can only be filed within a year of the establishment of the CAFO in question or within a year of a "fundamental change" at the organization, which cannot include changes in size of the operation, ownership, technology used or products produced.

What's more, even if such a lawsuit is filed, no punitive damages will be awarded unless the operator of the farm was convicted of a crime or received notice that state farm laws were broken. Not surprisingly, the North Carolina Pork Council praised the bill, whereas the North Carolina (NC) Conservation Network slammed it.

"The NC Farm Act is unjust and unnecessary, and it places the financial priorities of a global polluter over community members impacted by the pests, odors and other hazards of industrial agriculture practices," said Jamie Cole, policy advocate at the NC Conservation Network, in a news release. "It's difficult to believe that many of the lawmakers who voted for an override of Gov. Cooper's veto are not aware of the negative impacts this law will have."5

Lawsuits Have Focused on Waste 'Lagoons' and Spraying

North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the U.S. (second to Iowa) and home to more than 2,500 pig CAFOs.6 The estimated 9 million pigs living in the state produce copious amounts of waste — up to 10 times the amount of an average human7 — for which there is no easy, or environmentally friendly, disposal solution. The industry's answer is to store the waste in open-air, often unlined "lagoons."

Such systems were banned in 2007, but older farms were grandfathered in and still continue to use them. Waste from such lagoons can leach into groundwater and wells, run off into waterways, and cause all sort of environmental problems. North Carolina alone has an estimated 4,500 active lagoons and 1,700 inactive lagoons.8

The liquefied waste from the lagoons is then sprayed onto nearby fields, leaving neighbors to deal with the aftermath. Says Elsie Herring, who lives in eastern North Carolina next to a field regularly sprayed with CAFO pig manure, "You stand outside and it feels like it's raining but then you realize it isn't rain. It's animal waste. It takes your breath away. You start gagging, coughing, your pulse increases. All you can do is run for cover."9

Odors aside, air near CAFOs is known to be polluted with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, residues of veterinary antibiotics and bacteria, and research has found that people living near Iowa CAFOs have elevated rates of respiratory symptoms compared to those not living near the industrial farms. In North Carolina, CAFO neighbors report increased headaches, runny noses, sore throats, coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes,10 while the odors alone are also associated with tension, depression and anger.

Children living near pig CAFOs also have a higher incidence of asthma,11 and these polluting CAFOs are found most often in areas with larger African-American, Latino and Native American populations. CAFOs in North Carolina are far less likely to appear in white communities, especially those low in poverty. "This spatial pattern is generally recognized as environmental racism," researchers wrote.12

Beyond pollution, CAFOs pose serious threats of spreading diseases to humans, including not only antibiotic-resistant bacteria but also novel viruses. For instance, a pig virus, the porcine deltacoronavirus (PDCoV), first identified in Hong Kong in 2012, has recently been shown to have the potential to leap to humans. The sometimes-fatal virus causes diarrhea and vomiting in pigs, and researchers revealed it has the potential to be transmitted between species, including to humans.13

Price Fixing Consumer Prices

Another lawsuit filed against Smithfield Foods and eight other pork producers, including Tyson Foods, Hormel and JBS USA, alleges the companies intentionally worked together to inflate prices of pork. The lawsuit was filed by dozens of Minnesotans, and states the companies used benchmark reporting of financial information, slaughter rates and more — not for gauging performance, as it's intended, but to monitor each other's production and pricing.

Instead of reducing production costs and thereby reducing prices to consumers, the companies artificially inflated consumer pork prices, the suit alleges. As further reported by the Star Tribune, "The complaint, which lists as plaintiffs a dozen consumers from Minnesota and several other states, alleges defendants broke antitrust laws, unfair competition laws, consumer protection laws and unjust enrichment common laws within 11 states."14

Meanwhile, U.S. hog inventory is up 3 percent as of June 1, 2018, coming in at 73.5 million, as is the market hog inventory, at 67.1 million. "This is the highest June 1 market hog inventory since estimates began in 1964," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).15 So, while industrial pig producers may have been conspiring to raise consumer pork prices, there's an excess of hog inventory in the U.S., which means farmer prices will be deflated.

It's no wonder Murphy-Brown (the Smithfield subsidiary) is a $15 billion company while WH Group, which owns them, brought in $22 billion in revenue in 2017.16 Yet, the people living near their noxious CAFOs are suffering from health complaints, reduced quality of life, and a financial inability to sell their properties and move away from their polluting neighbors.

Why You Should Seek Out Pastured Pork and Avoid CAFO Meat

Every time you buy CAFO pork (or any CAFO product), you're supporting this atrocious industry. I encourage you to avoid CAFO meats and instead either buy your meat direct from a trusted grass fed 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.17

The AGA standard allows for greater transparency and conformity18 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. 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. When you do so, you're protecting your health and the environment, while indirectly taking a stand for those who are unfortunate enough to live near a North Carolina (or any) CAFO — and finding themselves with little opportunity to fight back.