The faces behind pork lawsuits

Lawsuits against Virginia-based Smithfield Foods boil down to one important issue — people. On both sides of the issue.

And many of those people are our neighbors and friends.

That’s why it is so difficult to watch the drama play out in court, knowing that, in the end, no one will truly walk away a winner.

We understand the plight of residents who have put up with what they have called nasty smells caused by livestock sewage and the myriad issues caused by the stench, and we support their right to defend their home, their property values and a way of life they believe the Hong Kong-owned pork company has taken away.

They are the faces of men and women, boys and girls we respect, applaud and support.

But their faces aren’t the only ones we see.

Just as clearly, we see the families who make a living from the animals which, unfortunately, cause a stench. They are the hard-working men and women, boys and girls, who roll up shirtsleeves and tend the houses filled with animals whose waste is flushed into holding pits and then sprayed onto fields with agricultural spray guns.

Most of them work for companies such as Smithfield Foods. It is how they make their living, support their families and put money back into our economy here in Sampson and in neighboring counties like Duplin and Bladen.

They are people we respect, applaud and support.

Yet theirs aren’t the only faces we see either.

Inside a plant on Railroad Street in Clinton, we see men and women, close to a thousand of them, working in various departments, cutting meat, vaccum-packing it, boxing it, hauling it and researching ways to better protect the environment. They are hard-working individuals who support families in Sampon and neighboring counties and put money back into those economies as well. These are Smithfield employees, again our neighbors and our friends.

All are impacted by the pending lawsuits and the one which recently ended with a jury awarding 10 neighbors $750,000 in compensation plus $50 million in damages designed to punish Smithfield. The judge slashed the punitive damages to $2.5 million, citing a state law that limits the punishment for corporate misdeeds.

There are other faces, too, like the 257 million Americans who consumed bacon in 2017, or the millions more who eat pork at least once a week.

Such is the war for and against pork. People love it, but producing it isn’t pretty. It never has been and, we doubt it ever will be.

That’s the reality.

Also a reality is the fact that hogs and their waste have never smelled good. That was true when they were raised in a farmer’s backyard, where they rolled around in the muck and mud that eventually seeped into the ground water and found its way to rivers and streams. And it is true today, in the 21st century where technology is making headway but cannot completely fend off an issue with waste and its stench.

Should Smithfield be more conscientious and deliberate in helping neighbors who have ghastly problems like those described in the first lawsuit? Most certainly. They are an enormous company that profits greatly from consumers’ love of pork. And with that comes great responsibility.

Should it come with the hefty penalties initially leveled? We don’t think so. The message has been delivered and, we feel certain, received.

But debilitating Smithfield means crippling the very people who are our friends and neighbors. It will trickle down from plant employees to our farm families and eventually our own economy.

And no one wins.

Middle ground must be found, and the onus, we believe, is on Smithfield, which, in our estimation, has been moving in that direction for some time now. Perhaps they’ve not moved as quickly as they could or should, but we believe the company understands its duty and is working to fulfill it.

What we don’t need is crippling lawsuits that wind up making wealthy corporate attorneys richer while paralyzing the hard-working men and women who have helped to make counties like Sampson and Duplin great.

What we don’t need is slick politicians — seeking votes and campaign funds — trying to manipulate legal systems by enacting laws that give companies a free pass rather than demanding they be good corporate citizens who work to protect residents and the environment.

Common ground and a unity of purpose needs to be found. We preach it a great deal from this page, but we continue to believe it is tantamount to making the world a better place.