By Karen Perry Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists
In his first year running the US Department of Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue has displayed a curious tendency to say things he really shouldn’t. The most recent example is his striking off-the-cuff comment about a big court judgment won by neighbors of a massive hog farm and its stinking cesspools in North Carolina. Perdue told reporters he was not familiar with the case, in which a US District Court jury leveled a landmark $50 million verdict against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. But that didn’t stop him from calling the jury’s decision “despicable.”
Secretary Perdue’s alignment with big corporate interests over the public interest has been clear for a while. But his knee-jerk reaction to this case, along with related pending actions at his USDA, suggests that he is willing to throw workers, farmers, rural residents, consumers, and clean air and water overboard to protect Big Pork’s bottom line.
“Nuisance” is putting it mildly
When the jury in the Murphy-Brown case (a so-called “nuisance” suit filed on behalf of a group of 10 neighbors) handed down its decision on April 26, fear surely rippled through the pork industry. Led by Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota, annual US pig production exceeded 110 million animals in 2014, with the total national swine herd that year valued at $9.5 billion. In 2018, the industry is forecast to produce even more pigs—an estimated 134 million. The vast majority of those animals will be raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate huge quantities of concentrated manure waste. In North Carolina alone, hog and poultry CAFOs produce 15,000 Olympic-size pools’ worth of waste each year.
In that state, there’s a long line of angry CAFO neighbors awaiting their chance to demand justice for the harm these operations cause. More than 500 plaintiffs have filed 26 lawsuits alleging damage from Murphy-Brown’s operations. The company’s practice of holding liquified manure in open pits and spraying the excess on nearby fields, common in the CAFO industry for decades, leaves a reeking stench over nearby communities. Residents, most of them working class and black, complain of health problems—which researchers have shown can include nausea and respiratory problems such as asthma—along with reductions in property values and quality of life from the CAFOs that built up around them. If juries in the other North Carolina cases (and in CAFO lawsuits elsewhere, like one filed this week by Iowa residents against that state) decide in favor of plaintiffs, it could be a watershed moment for environmental justice—and may force the industry to change.
In the weeks since the North Carolina jury’s bombshell announcement, the judge in the case has bowed to a state law that caps punitive damage awards, reducing the $50 million award to a mere $3.25 million. Still not exactly small potatoes, but the reduction must have prompted sighs of relief from the board rooms of Murphy-Brown, parent company Smithfield Foods, and WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield and is the world’s largest pork company.
And there’s more for giant pork companies to smile about. In addition to state laws that have long enabled the pork industry to operate profitably at the expense of its neighbors and continue to protect it from major consequences, Big Pork appears to have the Trump administration on its side.
Perdue backs Big Pork over farmers…
Two regulatory actions initiated by the USDA in its first year under Secretary Perdue show how it has favored the big corporations that process and sell US pork at the expense of small farmers and workers in the industry. First, last fall the department announced it would withdraw the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, Obama-era rules that would have made it easier for livestock and poultry farmers to sue meat processing companies with which they have contracts and to protect farmers from unfair and predatory corporate practices. In response, a group of farmer plaintiffs and the Organization for Competitive Markets filed suit in December, calling the rules’ cancellation arbitrary and capricious, a gift to the industry, and a failure to protect small farmers.
Speaking to reporters as part of a farm tour in Ohio last month, Perdue suggested farmers are on their own:
There are farmers there, some of which will not survive because other people do it better. That’s the American capitalistic society. The best producers thrive and provide, and the others find another industry where they can thrive.
That’s a startling statement from a guy who claims to serve the interest of farmers—Perdue calls them the USDA’s “customers,” and they still largely support the Trump administration (though their support is slipping).
…and workers and food safety, too
In a related action, the USDA in January proposed a rule it claims will “modernize” swine slaughter. In fact, by reducing the number of trained government food inspectors in pork processing plants and allowing plants to operate at higher speeds (something the administration has also tried in poultry plants). These changes would likely increase rates of worker injury and incidents of meat contamination, and the proposed rule faces broad opposition from food safety, labor, and animal welfare groups. More than 83,500 people wrote to the USDA about it during a public comment period that closed May 2, and dozens of members of Congress have also entered the fray. In their letter to Secretary Perdue, 63 members of the House of Representatives (including several from leading pork states) cited the danger posed by the hog slaughter rule to workers and urging the secretary to withdraw it.
As various lawsuits wind their way through the courts and the swine slaughter rule proceeds through the regulatory process, we’ll see whether Secretary Perdue’s USDA backs down or continues to back Big Pork. Meanwhile, the perception of the Trump administration’s coziness with the industry is peaking in a weird way: in the online video game Bacon Defender, players navigate an animated high speed pork plant—complete with falling poop emojis and oddly Trump-like voice effects—armed only with a mustard-shooting hot dog. “Even a novice Bacon Defender player quickly learns that at higher speeds feces can contaminate your food more easily,” say the game’s creators.
I wish I had a sad poop emoji for that.