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Est. April 5, 2002
November 03, 2016 - Issue 673

Industrial Hog Farm Research Lawsuit
Threatens Academic Freedom in N.C.


"Big corporations own much of what we
depend on for information that is vital to
citizens in a democracy.  They, however,
have the deepest pockets and tend to
overwhelm decency in public life, since
they also have batteries of lawyers who
have nothing to do but keep the people at bay."

At first glance, one might ask: What has industrial pork production have to do with academic freedom?

In the U.S. in recent years, there seems to have been an undeclared war on science and those who seek scientific knowledge through research and study. Just look at the ranks of climate change deniers in the Congress and state legislatures. And, those deniers, serving the interests of giant fossil fuel corporations and their lobbyists have paved the way for the average citizen who has been influenced by AM talk radio and Internet sites run by climate deniers to believe and repeat that everything is fine and humans are not the cause of climate change or warming, and that climate change is a liberal lie.

There’s even a climate change denial industry and all of its work goes to benefit the corporations that have never given a thought to changing the way they generate their profits, no matter what the destructive effects on the environment that we all need to be healthy. So, no matter that only 3 percent of climate scientists around the world say that humans are not the cause of climate change, the propaganda that comes out of establishment media and some colleges and university science departments drowns out the research of government and academic scientists who make up the other 97 percent of climate scientists, who have found that humans, indeed, have caused incredible damage.

In North Carolina, it isn’t so much denial of scientific data that is the question, but whether a giant transnational corporation can influence scientific research, by suing the researcher(s), costing the scientist and others a lot of money and at the same time, warn others not to be quick to study perceived problems, unless you don’t mind a pack of corporate lawyers breathing down your neck.

Smithfield Foods, a formerly U.S.-owned giant pork corporation that is now owned by a giant Chinese corporation, is trying to slow down or halt research into the negative effects of hog factories on the people who live in the vicinity of the operations in eastern North Carolina. Steve Wing, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues have documented the adverse impacts of industrial hog operations on the health and well-being of neighboring residents. He has worked with people like Gary Grant, president of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) in Tillery, N.C. As has been found in other examples of environmental racism, the pollution generated by these factories disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities.

Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is asking for support for University of North Carolina Chapel Hill researchers who have studied the negative effects of industrial hog operations on the health of people living in the area of the pork factories.

In this instance, those demanding details of the research are Smithfield Foods, which was purchased by a Chinese entity a few years ago and one of its subsidiaries. On the surface, this seems like a routine SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Such lawsuits are designed (mostly by corporations) to exhaust the finances of individuals and citizen groups and to discourage any further work that is designed to protect citizens or the environment or anything for the public good. PSR asks: Sign a letter calling for University of North Carolina leaders to support their faculty against corporate harassment and intimidation. Academic freedom and the role of independent research are essential for researchers to study threats to health.  UNC should create a process that protects faculty members from sweeping subpoenas that threaten confidentiality agreements and interfere with their research and teaching duties.

PSR noted, “Wing and colleagues published their research in prominent peer-reviewed journals including Environmental Health Perspectives, the American Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology. Subsequently, over 500 North Carolina residents filed suit in federal court alleging that hog pollution from nearby factories degrades their quality of life, health and well-being. In response to the Defendant’s motion to dismiss the cases, Wing agreed to provide an affidavit describing the findings of studies conducted in North Carolina prior to commencement of the litigation. The federal grants for this research were made to UNC-CH.”

The waste from the hog factories, such as feces and dead animals, are put into what the corporations call “lagoons,” which sound very different from what they really are: open waste pits that contain tons of feces and the rotting carcasses of animals. The pits emit foul (and who knows how dangerous) odors into the air and leach into the surrounding ground. The water table in parts of that region are said to be only at 10 feet below the surface, so it is very easy for the waste water to migrate into the water table, water that is vital to human populations and their livestock.

Wing, according to PSR, was subpoenaed by Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods and WH Group, a Chinese corporation, to produce “all data and related materials for the study or studies” of “volunteers living within 1.5 miles of industrial swine production in 16 neighborhoods in eastern North Carolina.” This apparently was a clear attempt to vacuum up research information to both intimidate and cost researchers and the university as much money as possible.

PSR is asking that scientific researchers and their university colleagues around the country write and sign a letter to UNC, demanding that it support Wing and the other researchers. In the letter, it should be noted, PSR said, “these sweeping demands are intimidating and harassing. They include information protected by confidentiality agreements that are required under federal rules governing research involving human subjects. There is a documented history of intimidation of residents who publicly oppose pollution of their communities, and a reasonable expectation of industry retaliation against individuals and community organizations that participated in the research.

Following a 2016 incident, the US Environmental Protection Agency accepted an intimidation complaint, filed on behalf of Eastern North Carolina residents, under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

The letter is directed to UNC System President Margaret Spellings and UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt. The crux of the letter is that those who sign it “urgently request that the University develop policies to shield faculty from intimidation, to preserve academic freedom, and to protect the ability of faculty to use government-supported research in the public interest.” To obtain a copy of the letter, visit

Corporate intrusion into the integrity of research at UNC is not just a problem in North Carolina. It is a universal problem throughout the U.S. Their propaganda overwhelms everything, as it is present in most aspects of our national life. Big corporations own much of what we depend on for information that is vital to citizens in a democracy. They, however, have the deepest pockets and tend to overwhelm decency in public life, since they also have batteries of lawyers who have nothing to do but keep the people at bay. The work of the citizenry is to prove them wrong. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.





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