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So far, Smithfield Foods is 0-for-3 in lawsuits filed against it by neighbors of its industrial-scale hog farms.
Given juries’ reactions to the evidence they’re heard in each of the three suits, it’s not difficult to formulate an educated guess about the outcomes of the next 23 trials still ahead. Once jurors hear about the living conditions for the factory farms’ neighbors, they don’t have much sympathy for the world’s largest pork producer.
And there’s a reason for that: Smithfield’s growers use near-medieval waste-disposal techniques, holding enormous quantities of hog waste — as much sewage, or more, than a small city would generate — in open-air pits that are almost laughably called “lagoons.” And then the waste is sprayed on nearby farm fields as a fertilizer.
The stench can be sickening. One neighbor — not a plaintiff but a former police officer — said the only thing he’s smelled quite like it are decaying human bodies. Worse, if a breeze kicks up during spraying, clouds of swine effluent can drift over nearby houses, yards, cars and even laundry hanging outside.
And then there is the insect problem, which, according to testimony at the trials, can be severe. Traffic is an issue too, with hog-hauling tractor-trailers roaring down country roads at all hours of the day and night, interrupting neighbors’ sleep.
It’s not a pleasant picture. And in each succeeding trial of suits brought by the farms’ neighbors, the damage awards have grown larger. In the verdict reached Friday, the jury slapped Smithfield with a $473.5 million judgment. Even when it is reduced to the $94 million state legal cap on punitive judgments, it’s significant.
As with previous verdicts, Smithfield says it will appeal. And North Carolina Republican lawmakers — many of whom have received generous campaign donations from the pork industry — have expressed outrage, railing against the juries, the plaintiffs and their “out-of-town lawyers,” and passing new legislation that makes it almost impossible to file a nuisance suit against agricultural operations, no matter how unlivable they make residential areas around the farms.
The North Carolina Pork Council warns ominously that these verdicts will lead to more lawsuits against agricultural operations across the country. “This verdict will spread from eastern North Carolina to all corners of American agriculture,” the group said after Friday’s verdict.
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, whose congressional district includes some of the biggest pork-producing counties in the country, was even more apocalyptic: “Today’s nuisance lawsuits that are destroying livelihoods and communities in North Carolina are the tip of the iceberg for what is to come absent a well-informed public and good public policy. This is a very slippery slope that threatens the very existence of every form of agriculture nationwide.”
These suits are about the practices in this state of an industry that has refused to embrace modern technology, or even simple measures that it has taken in other states, like covering its waste pits, as it has in Missouri and Colorado. In truth, the use of open-air pits and spray disposal of hog waste were banned in North Carolina at new livestock operations in 1997. But existing operations were “grandfathered,” and so they simply expanded as the pork industry grew.
Smithfield, which is owned by Chinese food giant WH Group, clings to the primitive waste-disposal technique, perhaps to keep costs down. There are plenty of 21st century alternatives available to the company, and the expertise to implement them — right here in North Carolina, at N.C. State University, among other places.
Our state and federal lawmakers would be wise if they responded to these verdicts by helping move Smithfield and other producers into modern, efficient animal-waste management techniques, instead of passing legislation that further infringes on the constitutional property rights of the hog farms’ neighbors.