Your Social License Can Be Revoked

The following commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of AgWeb or Farm Journal. The opinions expressed below are the author's own.

The jury verdict against a contract farm in the Smithfield Foods system last week sent reverberations throughout the pork industry, and agriculture in general. It was the first of several pending lawsuits in North Carolina to be decided, and it set a dangerous and uncomfortable precedent.

The National Pork Producers Council and other farm groups immediately spoke out against the verdict, saying it was “a blatant assault on animal agriculture and on rural America.” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called the verdict “despicable,” and indicated it should be overturned.

The verdict is disappointing on so many levels and pork producers across the country are concerned about the repercussions.

Black Eyes
Many people reading this will be too young to remember Jack and Peter DeCoster: They were owners of DeCoster Farms, notorious for their deplorable record of skirting the rules.

Joe Fassler, a reporter who investigated Jack DeCoster for many years, described him as a “serial corporate offender” on the website.

“Plants he’s owned in Iowa and Maine have been plagued with serious issues over the years, from allegations of unsafe working conditions and sexual abuse, to public health infractions and animal welfare concerns,” Fassler wrote. “It’s such a long, well-documented (though much of what was written about his offenses was pre-internet), and outrageous track record that, by 2010, Jack DeCoster arguably shouldn’t have been in business at all.”

DeCoster and his son, Peter, finally served three months in jail each, for allegedly sickening an estimated 56,000 people through eggs infected with Salmonella. Astoundingly, they served those short sentences last year, seven years after they were found guilty.

This was a situation where there really was a bad player, and lawsuits were the only way to get the DeCosters to either do the right thing, or get out of the business.

Not the Same
I am NOT comparing the recent verdict against the Smithfield contract farm to the DeCoster operations. Smithfield works hard to maintain its corporate image. It was one of the first large pork businesses to focus on sustainability and the environment, and it recently released the first installment of its 2017 Sustainability Report focusing on the company’s industry-leading approach to Animal Care.

It highlights Smithfield’s “successful completion of its sow group housing goal earlier this year, several industry “firsts,” and robust practices that ensure animals are safe, comfortable, and healthy,” the company reported in an email this week. (Click here to see an infographic that illustrates these details).

Your Social License
What it boils down to is this: The public won’t stand for anything less than best practices, especially in the food industry. Animal agriculture is not only entrusted with the health and welfare of the animals it produces, but also with environmental sustainability, food safety and food quality – all at the lowest price possible. It’s a lot to ask, but the public demands it.

In a blogpost on Meatingplace, Charlie Arnot with the Center for Food Integrity, says, “Global trends showing a public more concerned about food and agriculture are coming home to roost in farming communities. Those working in agriculture can no longer assume they enjoy the benefit of the doubt and are granted a social license to operate.”

He explains that social license is “the privilege of operating with minimal formalized restrictions based on maintaining public trust. It’s granted when you operate in a way that is consistent with the ethics, values and expectations of neighbors and the local community.”

Obviously, the expectations of the residents in North Carolina didn’t align with the reality of pork production. And as I pointed out in an earlier article, manure is generally knifed-in here in the Midwest, which dramatically lowers odors associated with nutrient management. Perhaps if that were the standard operating procedure in North Carolina, the lawsuits wouldn’t have happened, or perhaps not.

“Once lost, social license is replaced with social control, which brings the threat of regulation, legislation and litigation designed to compel you to perform to stakeholder expectations,” Arnot says in the Meatingplace article. “In today’s environment where consumers are crowd-sourcing knowledge and expressing their values and social preferences through lawsuits and ballot initiatives, trust has become the most valuable intangible asset of any organization.”

Do Your Best
I agree with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Pork Producers Council, the National Turkey Federation and the North American Meat Institute, when they say, “Farmers and ranchers are among the best stewards of the environment and strive to be good neighbors.”

However, the neighbors of the North Carolina farm obviously didn’t feel the owner was “doing the right thing.” Did they try to have a conversation with the farm owner? Was an agreeable solution that would have avoided the courts ever a possibility? Or was it a non-issue until the Texas lawyers came to town?

We’ll never know, but it behooves each of you to do all you can to avoid a similar situation. Very few farms can withstand the publicity, the penalties, or the lawyer fees. And the industry can’t afford it either.