DG MARTIN COLUMN: Smithfield’s turnaround

Published 2:17 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2022

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In a colorful full-page ad in North Carolina newspapers recently, Smithfield Foods touted its commitment to the environment.

D.G. Martin

It announced that good “doesn’t stop with our products — it’s in everything we do. From our bold goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% across our U.S. value chain and become carbon negative in our U.S. economy-owned operations by 2030, two innovative programs under way to reduce waste and energy use, we’re committed to ensuring you not only taste the difference in Smithfield, but that we make one too.”

Is this the same Smithfield that was responsible for hog farms in eastern North Carolina that crowded thousands of animals into extreme confinement and ruined the lives of families who lived nearby?

The answer is yes.

This change in Smithfield’s approach has been dramatic, but was not automatic.

It took lawsuits — a lot of them — against Smithfield and the operators of the hog farming facilities. These lawsuits were vigorously opposed by Smithfield.

The recent Smithfield advertisement features Kraig Westerbeek, vice president of renewals, who “leads efforts in North Carolina and beyond to lessen our environmental impact.”

Ironically, Westerbeek is an important character in a new book about Smithfield and about lawsuits that it thought it could win, but that instead brought about the changes outlined in the advertisement published in newspapers last week.

The litigation is chronicled in “Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial” by Corban Addison. The book shows how a small but representative group of citizens with property adjoining or near Smithfield hog raising facilities brought the company to its knees.

In a foreword to “Wastelands,” famed author John Grisham writes that the book “is the uplifting, round-by-round true story of a bunch of rural plaintiffs with no money and seemingly little hope, and the lawyers who smelled injustice and went to war on their behalf. In terms of pure storytelling this book has all the crucial elements that writers of fiction constantly struggle to find.”

First, according to Grisham, there is the tort, the wrongdoing, the pollution. There is the unregulated, wholesale destruction of property values and quality of life by 2000 commercial hog farms in eastern North Carolina.

Second, there are “the sympathetic victims, the five hundred or so small landowners unlucky enough to have their lives ruined by massive hog farms next door.”

Third, there are “the delightfully evil bad guys” of “Big Pork.”

Fourth, there are the lawyers, led by Salisbury’s Mona Lisa Wallace, “who step into the ring and battle against heavy odds,” gaining one big verdict and even bigger settlements.

Grisham continues admiringly, “Never in my most creative moments could I have assembled such a colorful and memorable cast of characters, and then blessed them with so riveting a set of facts, and then guided them through the ins and outs and uncertainties of high-stakes litigation.

“Beautifully written, impeccably researched and told with the air of suspense that few writers can handle, ‘Wastelands’ is a story I wish I had written.”

One key piece of the “Wastelands” story is how the group of lawyers that Wallace assembled put together this cast of hundreds of small landowners whose lives and properties had been ruined by the operation of Smithfield and its predecessors.

Another key is how the lawyers turned the landowners’ stories into winning lawsuits against Smithfield.

In a later column about “Wastelands,” we will see how this was done.

D.G. Martin, a lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”