The state Senate agreed Thursday night by a 32-9 vote to accept House changes to legislation spurred on by the agribusiness industry following the results of the first of nearly two dozen lawsuits filed against pork producers. Smithfield Foods was hit with a nearly $51 million verdict — cut to about $3 million because of state limits on punitive damages.
Language within a wide-ranging farm bill would all but block other neighbors from suing the operations in the future. Farmers have filled Legislative Building galleries this week supporting the changes.
The bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who hasn't said whether he'll veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature. But fellow Democrats and even several Republicans have complained the measure would give the influential hog industry an unfair advantage under the law and deny private property rights to eastern North Carolina residents living with the odors.
Republicans in charge of the General Assembly and shepherding the bill have spoken passionately for state's agriculture community and the country's No. 2 hog-growing state. They accuse outside forces of trying to put farmers who raise hogs for the pork industry out of business.
The lawsuits contend that Smithfield, which dictates the conditions under which farmers must raise its hogs, has resisted changing its concentrated animal husbandry methods because they cost less than less-smelly methods the company already uses in other states. Farms store hog waste in containment ponds, the contents of which are then sprayed on fields.
Neighbors say they don't want to put livestock operations out of business, but they shouldn't have to put up with the nuisances. They say Smithfield could and should eliminate those nuisances, even if it costs them more to do so. Smithfield Foods is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group, which generated $22 billion in revenues last year.
The farm bill also would prevent companies who sell soy, almond or plant-based drinks from marketing it on North Carolina shelves as "milk." But a late amendment would delay enforcement until nearly a dozen southeastern states adopt similar labeling requirements.