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Email Content: Poultry Industry News, Comments and more by Simon M. Shane

Rise in Environmental Lawsuits Predicted


This world in which we live is becoming scarier for businesses.  Not only are we contending with COVID-19 and environmental catastrophes such as extensive forest fires, hurricanes and floods, large enterprises can now consider environmental litigation as an additional risk. According to the September 19th edition of the Economist, more than 100 cases have been documented by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law of Columbia University.

Large-oil appears to be the principal target, but ambitious lawyers will probably shake-down producers of meat, claiming environmental impact. The stage has been set by mammoth lawsuits based on adverse health effects and mortality from exposure to asbestos and tobacco. Clear connections have been established over many decades that these products resulted in cancer and premature death. More recently opiods have become the focus of lawsuits. 


It now appears that the legal profession is evaluating environmental impact.  The difficulty for plaintiffs will be to establish a cause and effect relationship between the activities of a company’s products and a direct quantifiable result on a plaintiff or class.  As with asbestos and tobacco, and more recently with glyphosate litigation, claims based on scientific expert testimony have won jury verdicts that are expensive to defend or settle and are difficult to overturn.  Absent an adverse verdict, the costs involved in defending an action are considerable in addition to executive time and effort devoted to working with cooperate and outside council.

Cattle in Brazil on Cleared Amazon Forest


The recent cases litigated in North Carolina Federal courts alleging nuisance from hog-waste lagoons demonstrate the effect of concerted legal action despite friendly state legislation.  Ultimately, Smithfield Foods will have to reduce the quantity of hogs on growers' farms or install environmental mitigation possibly in the form of anaerobic-digestors, that without legal action would not have been commercially feasible.


It is also evident that pension funds and institutional investors are discriminating against companies with an adverse environmental record. Previously only “green funds” offered investors of conscience an opportunity to invest in companies with environmentally acceptable products.


In some cases, the courts can overturn zoning decisions and permits issued by state, county and local authorities based on real or contrived irregularities.  Large companies have to defend brands and in the age of social media, concerted action can degrade company image to the point that an intended location for new facilities and expansion are abandoned.  Sanderson Farms experienced aggressive opposition to siting a plant in Nash County, NC requiring relocation of the proposed facility to Robeson County that was more receptive. Costco’s Lincoln Premium Poultry operation was obliged to move their proposed plant location from Nickerson, NE. to Fremont, NE. as a result of local opposition.


There are preemptive measures that can be taken to facilitate acceptance and avoid litigation.  This is illustrated by the progression of public relations activities by Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in locating an egg production complex in Mechanicsburg, PA.  The key step was to bring local officials and media to an existing facility in Saranac, MI. to clearly demonstrate the quality and appearance of facilities, the absence of odor and any other nuisance.


Over the long term the red meat industry is vulnerable to claims that products contribute to health effects and degradation of the environment.  There is a slippery slope between the appearance of activists protesting outside stores to the emergence of concerted legal action aimed directly at an industry leader.


The egg production and broiler industries have demonstrated improvements in sustainability, environmental compliance and have advanced scientific research to confirm the wholesomeness of eggs and poultry meat. These are examples to emulate and should be considered by any public-quoted company involved in food production.

Copyright © 2020 Simon M. Shane