Local agri-business officials chided attempts to topple the hog industry and Murphy-Brown LLC representatives pledged they would not settle any nuisance suits filed against its local pork producers, even as hundreds of complaints in Sampson and surrounding counties have now materialized into five lawsuits — with more expected in the near future.
Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Murphy-Brown, addressed a crowd of close to 200 at the Agri-Exposition Center’s Heritage Hall Monday evening, during a special meeting sponsored by the Sampson County Friends of Agriculture.
“It’s our opinion that these threats of nuisance lawsuits — and the five lawsuits that have now actually been filed — have no basis in fact,” Butler told the audience of farmers, agri-business executives, lawmakers, public officials and others. “Their intent is to extinguish this business and animal agriculture in the United States as we know it. This is a very serious matter. Should they prevail, it poses an existential threat to this industry in North Carolina.”
Farm nuisance disputes were filed in the Wake County Courthouse in July by attorneys representing 588 potential claimants, all of eastern North Carolina, including Sampson. The requests contain allegations of nuisance — notably foul smell and pollution — from 59 farms in North Carolina, owned and operated by the company’s subsidiaries or independent farmers under contract with Murphy-Brown LLC, the world’s largest hog producer and subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.
Complaints in prelitigation notices include storage of hog waste in lagoons and the spraying of liquid manure on adjoining land. Butler said Monday 300 more plaintiffs have joined in the legal action, taking the number close to 900.
Under N.C. law, mediation of a farm nuisance dispute is generally required before a lawsuit may be filed, unless mediation is waived by all parties. Butler took the firms targeting Murphy-Brown, Smithfield and 150 of its growers to task, saying they are not looking for peaceful resolution in mediation.
“They had no intention of negotiating,” said Butler. “It was simply a venue where they would say to these 150-some people, you give us this amount of money and we’ll go away. We see it purely and simply as a money-grab.”
Butler called the firms “out-of-state ambulance chasers.” He said the litigation could in one way or another touch every person in the room. Friends of Agriculture president Ronnie Jackson agreed, saying the weight of the issue was not lost on the community, with not an empty seat in the room.
“It has been a source of great income and a great benefit to the economy of this county,” said Jackson of hog farming. “The farm income in (Sampson and Duplin) counties is close to $2 billion a year. Over 60 percent of that farm income is hogs. This particular problem that we’re facing right now is not an attack on Smithfield Foods or Murphy-Brown; it’s an attack on our whole way of life here.”
“You may sell shoes, you may insurance, you may sell cars, but you have a stake in the hog business,” he continued. “That’s why it’s vitally important that we support what’s going on here.”
Both Butler and Jackson alluded to the struggles the pork industry has had in the past, but said significant improvements have been made in the last decade, attributing the “exemplary” job pork producers’ strides have taken.
“If something is wrong, we go to the root cause of whatever that problem is and we fix it,” said Butler. “One thing we are all committed to is running clean operations. Recently, despite all of that and the quiet, peaceful times we’ve had in the last 10 years, we have been descended upon by out-of-state plaintiff’s attorneys.”
The complaints were filed by two lawyers active in a group known as the Center to Expose and Close Animal Factories (CECAF): Charlie Speer of Kansas City, Mo., and Richard Middleton of Savannah, Ga. A third lawyer, Mona Lisa Wallace of Salisbury, also is representing the hog farm neighbors. Calls for attorneys have not been returned.
Speer and others successfully sued Premium Standard Farms in Missouri years ago, receiving millions in a hog odor lawsuit. When Smithfield purchased Premium Standard Farms in 2007, it settled the litigation.
“After we purchased Premium Standard Farms, our legal team decided it was a bad situation and it was best (to settle). It had been in litigation for years and was likely to continue for years. It was a huge disruption and expense to us. In that situation, we did settle those claims,” said Butler. “That will not be the case here. We are not going to settle these cases in North Carolina.”
He said the complaints filed were all essentially the same, calling them “non-specific, vague” claims of nuisance, maintaining that factory farms were harmful.
“We have faith in the court system,” said Butler. “We have no intention of settling these cases. We believe there is as many as 53 other actual suits that will be served in the near future.”
Smithfield announced in May that it is being purchased for $7.1 billion by Chinese company Shuanghui International Holdings Limited. Shuanghui stands behind Smithfield and Murphy-Brown’s efforts in fighting any legal action, Butler said.
“We believe that part of their strategy might be to embarrass Smithfield during the time prior to closing of this transaction and that we would roll over and write them a big check to avoid negative publicity,” said Butler. “If that’s what their strategy was, that strategy has failed. We have notified the courts that we are waiving the mediation process. We told them to bring it on.”
Butler said Monday’s meeting was called to get the facts out and let everyone be aware of the issue. He said the efforts of CECAF have resulted in millions of dollars in settlements, but said he did not think the group would prevail in North Carolina. The number of complaints on local hog operations over the past decade, be they odor or water quality issues, have dramatically declined, down to “virtually zero” today, Butler maintained.
Butler declined to discuss legal strategies, but fielded questions pertaining to the complaints and impending litigation. He said many were “recruited” to be a part of the legal action.
“They have actively recruited people to sign on as plaintiffs,” said Butler. “The lawsuits or threats of lawsuits are targeted at Greene, Duplin, Sampson, Bladen and Pender counties. We’re not aware of any in any other counties right now, and it’s all targeted at Smithfield, Murphy-Brown and our growers. No one else is being targeted. It’s a very strange arrangement.”
Many asked how some farms were targeted and others were not, and if there was a pattern. Butler said there was not.
“I think most people feel like these are frivolous,” said Curtis Barwick. “Some of the folks I’ve talked to said some of these plaintiffs live anywhere from 4 to 16 miles from their operation.”
Butler said in some cases there is a hog operation on one side of town and complainants that live miles away on the other side of town.
“There are long distances between the two in some cases,” he noted.
Rep. William D. Brisson (D), who represents the 22nd district covering Bladen, Johnston and Sampson and is a farmer himself, agreed with Butler’s recruitment assessment.
Brisson was joined by numerous other lawmaker in attendance at Monday meeting, including fellow Reps. J.H. Langdon, Larry Bell and Jimmy Dixon, as well as Sen. Brent Jackson. Brisson said he talked to several growers in the last couple weeks and they informed him of the “recruitment” process being used on neighbors.
“These lawyers are pretty slick and they’re going to the folks and saying ‘we’re not suing your neighbor … we’re after Murphy-Brown and Smithfield, the big-money folks.’ So the neighbors are signing off on this and going to the grower and saying we don’t mean anything by it. Don’s exactly right, it’s about the money. They’re going to start with the integrators, and they’re starting with Smithfield and Murphy-Brown because they’re one of the largest.”
“If we don’t stand up for this, they’re going to continue to come after us,” said Brisson. “We have to stand up and we have to be together.”
Butler urged those in attendance to talk to their friends and neighbors and said he expected the law firms to launch media campaigns of their own in an effort to gain supporters. He said it was about being transparent and getting everything out on the table, and conceded Murphy-Brown would need the support.
“We would hope you would be as incensed about this as we are,” said Butler. “We’re offended about it and we think it is wrong. We feel very confident that a fair hearing of the facts on these cases, we will prevail. We have no intention of knuckling under to a bunch of greedy out-of-state lawyers who are here to enrich themselves using our friends and neighbors as a vehicle to do it.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.