A coalition of environmental, family farm, and animal welfare groups filed state and federal lawsuits in February against the world's biggest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc, alleging violations of environmental laws.
The suits are part of an aggressive legal assault against "factory farming," announced in December. The action is spearheaded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr's Water Keeper Alliance and backed by other activist groups, including the Sierra Club, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Humane Society of the United States, and the National Farmers Union.
The suits focus on the lagoons now used to store liquefied hog manure, claiming that they have overflowed into North Carolina rivers and streams too many times. The coalition charges that the company has broken the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and numerous state common laws.
The company argues that the lawsuits are unfounded. Richard J. M. Poulson, vice president and senior adviser to the chairman of Smithfield, said in statements that the lawsuits "represent a gross perversion of our legal system," and that the real problem in North Carolina's rivers was municipal and industrial pollution and crop runoff.
The industry is making every effort to develop better ways to handle animal waste, he said, including a $15 million grant to North Carolina State University to research environmentally friendly disposal technologies—part of an August 2000 agreement with the state's attorney general.
Leaders of the Water Keeper Alliance, the driving force behind the legal action, say they think those actions are "a joke." These lawsuits are just the beginning, said Kevin Madonna, national litigation director for Water Keeper Alliance—if necessary, the groups plan on filing hundreds of lawsuits against Smithfield and other pork producers.
"The broad goal is to bring this industry in compliance with environmental laws," Madonna said. "It's simple. What they've been doing is externalizing the costs of their operations. Instead of putting money into the treatment process and treating the waste—the by-product from their product—they're taking it and dumping it into the environment, which is owned by the public."
Although the charges alleged are mainly environmental, animal welfare also figures prominently in the lawsuits, said Water Keeper Alliance senior attorney Nicolette Hahn. Most of the animal welfare groups involved are not yet named plaintiffs in the lawsuits, but they may be in the future, she said.
"It's because operators of factory systems can be cruel to the animal that all of these other public health problems develop ... that is, if the animal were treated humanely in the first place, then we wouldn't have liquefied manure to pollute streams and groundwater and emit toxic gases that harm public health," as well as the health of animals outside the hog farms, said Diane Halverson, farm animal adviser for the Animal Welfare Institute.
The institute has developed humane husbandry standards that advocate, keeping hogs in open pens with continuous access to straw, chopped corn stover, pasture, or dirt yards so they can nest and root. The institute, and other groups in the coalition, sees family farming as the only humane and environmentally sound alternative.
"Our purpose is not to try to diminish the production of pork or to increase vegetarianism or anything like that, but to say there is a right way to do this, and that's more traditional farming methods," Hahn of Water Keeper Alliance said. "The way that has evolved in the past couple of decades as the predominant way to produce pork is damaging to the environment and to the animals and ultimately to humanity."
Smithfield disagrees that outdoor, open pens are the best way to raise hogs, both for the animals and the environment, according to company spokesperson Tyler Bishop. Waste management is a high priority in designing any Smithfield hog facility, he said, and the system of lagoons that are later sprayed onto crop fields is the best technology available. In an open-pen system, every rainfall flushes waste into rivers and streams, Bishop said.
"By every objective standard—longevity, stress level, mortality—the way we raise our hogs is better than outdoor pens," he said.
Dr. Paul Sundberg, director of veterinary issues for the National Pork Producers Council, said it shows "a lack of understanding of farming and animal husbandry and production" to say that raising pigs in deep straw bedding would eliminate environmental problems."We market approximately 100 million pigs in the US per year," he said. "One issue is, if we were to attempt to raise 100 million pigs in the type of a system that [the coalition] would advocate, I'm confident that they would find that there would be many more environmental questions and environmental issues than there are in the types of systems that are prevalent today."
Although he does not support one system in use today over another, Dr. Sundberg said that in any system, management of the facility is the most important factor influencing animal welfare. Veterinarians have an important role in fostering that skill, he said.
"The veterinarian, through the veterinary oath, is charged with protecting the health and welfare of the animal," he said. "One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that the producer, the person who works with those animals, understands husbandry skills. The veterinarian is in a wonderful position to help that producer and educate that producer in those husbandry skills."
Cindy D. Kuzma