Opinion: Will courts redefine CAFO operations?

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Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations have been around a long, long, long time.

Ironically the CAFO may own its invention to a shipping mistake.

Back in 1923, Ocean View, Sussex County, Delaware, red-haired farmer’s wife Cecile Long Steele needed 50 chicks for egg production.  She ordered the birds from Vernon Steen’s Dagboro hatchery.

Well, there must had been something wrong with Steen’s eyes because he sent Cecile not 50 but 500 chicks.

Instead of sending the birds back Cecile built a shed and raised the chicks indoors, eventually selling 387 birds that survived conditions in the coop for 62 cents a pound.

CAFO’s experienced huge growth after World War II.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines CAFOs  as:

“Animal Feeding Operations with more than 1,000 animal units (an animal unit is defined as an animal equivalent of 1,000 pounds live weight and equates to ,1000 head of beef cattle, 700 dairy cows, 2500 swine weighing more than 55 pounds, 125,000 broiler chickens, or 82,000 laying hens or pullets) confined on site for more than 45 days during the year.  Any size AFO that discharges manure or wastewater into a natural or man-made ditch, stream or other waterway is defined as a CAFO, regardless of size.

OK … lots of animals and tons of manure.

The Environment America Research and Policy Center estimates CAFOs contracted by Smithfield Foods Inc., Perdue Farms Inc., JBS, Tyson and Foods and Cargill Inc.  produce nearly 162.9 million tons of poop annually.

And along with all that manure, comes huge potential for contamination of waterways by poorly managed CAFO operations as well as health complaints of neighbors living in proximity of CAFOs.

The Chicago Tribune’s four-part series back in 2016 reported extensively on CAFOs, touching on the price of pork, animal abuse, pollution and the problems of raising hogs under contract to CAFO operations.

The Tribune’s reporting created barely a ripple in public debate or Illinois legislative policy.

And discovering what’s going on at CAFO’s is tough sledding for the curious.

Needless to say over the years the courts – both state and federal – have had their hands full of cases brought against CAFOs.

Court complaints are coming fast and furious:  tainted groundwater, stench, swarms of flies, plummeting property values and health concerns.

And the plaintiffs are getting verdicts from sympathetic juries.

Last week, 10 North Carolina residents were awarded more than $50 million dollars against pork producer Murphy Brown, which contracts to Smithfield, the largest hog producer in the U.S.

It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Another 25 CAFO lawsuits are pending against Murphy Brown in North Carolina, the nation’s second largest pork producer behind Iowa.

The gavel on the case barely came down before Smithfield announced it will appeal the federal district court verdict to the Fourth Circuit.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., a lot of CAFOs put profit number one.  There is a reason why open-air manure lagoons and spreading manure on farm fields is a favored CAFO disposal plan.

It’s cheap.

Perhaps if CAFOs are court-punched enough they’ll rethink disposal options.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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