The war against animal agriculture
By Marg Land
Smithfield Foods lost the first battle in a war against animal agriculture recently, a defeat that has left many producers, and the businesses that support them, nervous.
In late April, a federal jury ruled against the billion dollar food company in a lawsuit involving 10 neighbors upset by odors coming from a nearby 15,000-hog operation in Bladen County, which contracted with Smithfield. This was a hog operation doing everything by the book, meeting federal, state and local laws plus regulations. It had also never received a complaint from the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, or anyone else, about truck traffic, insects or odor before the lawsuit was served.
“The farm in question has been in full compliance with its state permit and relevant laws and regulations governing swine operations in North Carolina and is regularly inspected by state environmental officials,” stated Keira Lombardo, vice president of corporate affairs with Smithfield Foods, in a press release.
Kind of makes you wonder why the farm could be doing everything right on the legislative side of government but not on the judicial. Is there some disconnect that should be examined?
Company officials are steamed and are promising to appeal.
“From the beginning, the lawsuits have been nothing more than a money grab by a big litigation machine,” Lombardo said.
It also didn’t help that the judge refused to take the 10-person jury on a scratch-and-sniff field trip to the farm or allow Smithfield to present results from expert testing the company did at the site.
Unfortunately, this is just the first in a long stream of lawsuits involving hog odor expected to be happening across North Carolina this year. The case started in 2014 after hundreds of state residents filed a lawsuit against Smithfield arguing the smell of pigs interfered with their quality of life and the company wasn’t investing in “proper waste management” to stop it. A federal judge divided the plaintiffs into eight groups with the first group’s trial ending with an award of $750,000 in compensation to the neighbors plus damages. And, while the media is suggesting the damages portion may be as high as $50 million, Smithfield believes those reports are exaggerated.
“Punitive damages are limited to the greater of $250,000, or three times the amount of compensatory damages, which in this case were $75,000 per person,” explained Lombardo. “This means that each plaintiff should be awarded $325,000 for a total judgment for all 10 plaintiffs of $3.25 million.”
Even so, that’s going to hurt the company’s pocketbook and, eventually, the hog industry in North Carolina. The state’s pork council was “greatly disappointed” and “saddened” by the results.
“Make no mistake – these lawsuits are part of an ongoing, coordinated and unfounded attack on agriculture that endangers thousands of jobs and economic activity across the state, especially in rural eastern North Carolina,” council officials stated in a public release.
We’ll be watching this issue closely over the coming months. It’s looking like a long, tense summer for North Carolina hog farmers.