N.C. Nuisance Protection and the Search for Truth

If you want to talk about polarizing issues, protection against nuisance lawsuits would have to be near the top of the list.

It’s interesting that legislators in North Carolina are pushing to pass a law that would protect farmers from lawsuits, during a time when one hog farm nuisance lawsuit was recently won by plaintiffs, another one is going through the system, and 24 more lawsuits are pending. (Read Sara Brown’s article on the suits). It’s unfortunate the protection wasn’t in place before the lawsuits were filed, because it might be pretty difficult to get the horse back in the barn.

According to AP, a North Carolina House committee approved the proposal on Tuesday that was unveiled and passed by the state Senate last week. General media outlets like to refer to these as “Ag Gag” laws.

With two dozen lawsuits waiting in the wings, it’s easy to see why the new protection is necessary. Combine an aggressive law firm from Texas with people who live by large hog farms (especially if those farms were built and/or expanded after they moved there); throw in a media frenzy looking to target what they call “Big Ag” (aka Smithfield Foods); add a dash of cash for the plaintiffs, and you have a recipe for a PR disaster for the No. 2 hog state.

Bad for All Parties
It’s a sad situation on many levels. The North Carolina pork industry accounts for close to $8 billion a year in revenue and 46,000 full-time jobs in production and processing, according to the North Carolina Pork Council. It also gives an interesting fact: “Pork was among 16 commodities used as legal tender by colonists in the early 1700s.”

The industry has changed over the years, but large operations were common in North Carolina long before they were common in other parts of the country. And as a result, that industry has been under scrutiny by activists and the media.

“Ten years ago, a UNC professor gathered odor data,” Andy Curliss, CEO of NCpork.org states in a blog on the organization’s website. “He asked a group of 101 volunteers, recruited by an activist group opposed to hog farming, to measure the odor outside their homes twice a day for two weeks. To be clear, we question this as a valid way to study.

“The participants, each of whom lived within a mile and a half of a hog farm, were told to rate odor on a scale from 0 (no odor) to 8 (very strong).

“Here is what they reported…The results show what we already know. Farms of all types have an occasional smell. But even here, 80% of the time there was either no odor or it was very faint. The odor was rated as strong to very strong only 2.3% of the time. (Yes, those categories are correctly transcribed from the report.)”

“All of this should help to explain why we say without hesitation that those who make extreme claims that odor from the farms is awful are exaggerating.”

The AP article noted that “Opponents say nuisance lawsuits are one of the last tools left to force change from an industrial-scale hog industry that hasn't changed despite decades of complaints about open-air waste pits emptied by spraying on fields.”

On the other hand, those farms are following standard practices that have been evaluated by researchers and used for years, with very few previous complaints.

Don’t Take Information at Face Value
It’s easy for people to get caught up in the moment. Since none of us are in the courtroom listening to what’s being presented we need to be cautious about the opinions we form, the sources we read, and the information we use to frame the issue. Remember, most members of the national media don’t understand modern agriculture, yet they’re quick to use terms like “terrible stench,” “cesspools” and other emotionally charged verbiage that causes people to form an immediate opinion. The last thing we need are soundbites that play to emotions on an issue that can impact the livelihood of thousands of people.