Jury says pork producer has to pay $25 million in damages, even as North Carolina lawmakers rush to protect factory farms
North Carolina residents who live near giant pig factory farms have long complained about the stench from the open manure lagoons, the swarms of flies that descend on their homes, mobs of vultures who pick over rotting hog carcasses and the constant rumbling of trucks driving back and forth. These are more than ordinary nuisances: they are serious problems that have caused illnesses among neighbors, decreased property values, and an overall diminishing of the residents’ quality of life.
On Friday, a federal jury acknowledged these devastating effects of pig factory farms, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), when it demanded that Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, pay two neighbors more than $25 million in damages. This is the second such jury verdict against the pork producer in two months. In April, a federal jury slapped the company with a $51 million verdict in a similar lawsuit, although the amount was reduced by the trial judge to $3.25 million under a law capping punitive damages.
One would think that two massive jury verdicts would make North Carolina lawmakers act immediately to hold factory farm polluters accountable for ruining the lives of its citizens and require pork companies that create similar problems to enact common-sense reforms. But instead, after the first verdict in April, the legislature did precisely the opposite. In June, North Carolina lawmakers hastily passed a measure that severely restricts the rights of affected neighbors to pursue legal remedies for the hardships the CAFOs create. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the legislation, calling for the need to protect the property rights of neighbors, but the legislature quickly overrode his veto, making this bill the law of the land in the state. Pending cases, however, will not be affected, which means the two jury verdicts will stand and a slate of additional such lawsuits brought by residents before this law can proceed.
This isn’t the first time the North Carolina legislature has thumbed its nose at its own people. In 2015, the state’s lawmakers passed one of the nation’s most egregious “ag-gag” measures, which made it unlawful to document and report cruelty in factory farms and other workplaces. The bill was vetoed by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory only to be quickly overridden by the legislature.
It is clear that North Carolina’s lawmakers are not concerned about the health and well-being of their citizens, or the state’s air, water and natural environment, or the economic vitality of its rural communities. What they care most about is the bottom line of Big Pork, led by their lobbying group, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).
Pig producers all over the nation – including both industrial operations and small family farmers – are forced to pay into a mandatory USDA “checkoff fund” that has been unlawfully diverted to support laws like the one passed in North Carolina last week. This illegal misuse of hard-earned producer dollars is putting family farmers out of business. Farmers who raise their animals on pasture, and who reject the use of cruel gestation crates that immobilize mother pigs for most of their lives, must still pay into the checkoff program, even though their dollars are being used to promote the worst kind of production methods, rather than more humane and environmentally sustainable methods.
The Humane Society of the United States has made passing commodity checkoff reform a top priority. The HSUS, along with the National Farmers Union, the Heritage Foundation, the National Dairy Producers Organization, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the American Grass-fed Association, and more than 250,000 farmers and ranchers, supports the bipartisan Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S. 741/H.R. 1753 sponsored by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and U.S. Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., and Dina Titus, D-Nev. This legislation would prevent the checkoff program from being used as a slush fund to pay industry lobbyists for laws that work against farmers and citizens, like the one passed in North Carolina. Last week, Sens. Lee and Booker offered the OFF Act as an amendment to the federal Farm Bill, but the measure failed by a vote of 38 to 57 because two North Carolina senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans, kowtowed to Big Ag and the NPPC by voting against this much-needed reform.
With last week’s verdict in favor of residents hurt by pork factory farms, and the earlier verdict in April, we are seeing juries – made up of regular people – doing what the lawmakers of North Carolina have so callously refused to do. Instead of shutting down this last resort for their residents to get justice, lawmakers in North Carolina should do the job they were elected to do: protect the people, the animals, and the environment of the state’s rural communities from the scourge of multinational factory farms and their devastating consequences.
Contact your members of Congress today at 202-224-3121 and ask them to cosponsor the OFF Act.