Industrialization of agriculture has outpaced the traditional family-raised pig farm with streamlined efficiency and high profit margins, but it also has outpaced the smaller farms in another big way: swine odor problems of epic proportions.
A high-profile lawsuit filed in part by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and the development of a technology that gauges the intensity and composition of smelly things, are bringing more attention to the issue.
"Imagine if every single one of the 8 million residents of the state of North Carolina dumped all of their waste in open pits and then sprayed the results over their fields," said environmental activist Dean Naujoks.
Factor in North Carolina's 10 million pigs, second only to Iowa's 15 million that render Iowa the largest swine-producing state. Then, when you consider there are approximately 60 million hogs being raised in farms across the country, it's a wonder people aren't gagging on the other white meat.
The problem of swine odor has created a complex world of odor management, an industry that exists solely to render the byproducts of "industrial meat animal production" less malodorous.
Last month, Bradley Striebig, head of environmental research at Penn State, along with an odor management team presented a new instrument that can do something that has never been done before: quantify smells.
The tool, called the Odor Index, not only can identify what chemical compounds are present in any given smell, but it can place a value on the intensity of the smell.
They intend to scientifically prove, once and for all, that few smells are more intense than those emanating from a hog factory farm.
Swine odor is a complex brew of smells. Pig manure contains such concentrated chemicals as ammonia, nitrogen, sulfites and phosphorus, which interact with organic runoff from the slaughterhouses.
The dust from the desiccating waste traps the odors and spreads quickly with the aid of factory ventilators. The foul-smelling dust clings to everything that lies in its path, including people's lungs, several University of Iowa reports claim.
Innovations in the industry include wean-to-finish warehouses -- facilities that produce pork products in one location. The pigs are born and raised in small pens arranged in football field-sized warehouses with slatted floors. Then they are slaughtered in on-site abattoirs.
The pigs never leave the pens and their waste drops through the slats into special sluices that are then flushed with water. This creates a slurry of excrement that is directed to an outdoor holding tank, called a lagoon.
Eventually, after the waste has settled and decomposed, the concentrated liquid is sprayed over fields as a fertilizer. Besides the factories themselves, nearby rivers and properties find they are knee-deep in the stuff when the fields become saturated or when the lagoons flood, said Naujoks, the riverkeeper of the Upper Neuse River and a member of The Waterkeeper Alliance, which has taken on the whole hog industry.
Many documented cases of animal abuse in these facilities exist, said Cem Akin, a researcher with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"Pigs raised in industrial hog farms live nightmare lives, packed close together by the hundreds.... Living above their own waste causes tremendous suffering," Akin said.
The Waterkeeper Alliance and its president, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have sued two of North Carolina's largest industrial hog farming corporations, said Waterkeeper attorney Jeffrey Odefiy. They claim the farms violate the Clean Water Act and endanger "human health and environment" by directing untreated, unlicensed odor and chemical pollution into the Neuse River.
A huge public furor encouraged the North Carolina legislature to pass a moratorium on any more large-scale industrial hog farms until October 2003, Odefiy said. "But that just means that the companies will move to places that are less politicized," he said.
Environmental groups are not the only organizations involved in the controversial industry.
Entire university research laboratories and government branches of the USDA are dedicated to swine odor management. These groups monitor, measure and determine what can be done about what Odefiy called the hogs' "fecal marinade."
Companies such as Phoenix Processes and Ozone Solutions promise technological methods to neutralize the sources of swine stench.
Phoenix Processes owner Anita Newton describes her company's system as a "beautiful and cost-effective solution with no toxicity ... that the industry really doesn't want."
The companies make too much money charging the contract farmers for antibiotics to keep the pigs healthy, Newton said. She says it would be more practical and less expensive to find a way to prevent odor and pollution than it would be to fight the environmentalists.
Newton said she doesn't consider herself to be anti-industry, "just anti-hurting people."
Unlike other "snake-oil" companies, "we apply beneficial, non-biogenic cultures in the barn (rather than in the lagoons), as close to their curly tails as we can.... The truth is -- take care of the hydrogen sulfite and ammonia and you've solved the problem."
Striebig was not persuaded by such claims.
"There has been no evidence to suggest that current commercial methods are able to completely chemically neutralize a complex odor," he said. "Successful odor management is based on changing the process of how something is produced."
"PhDs want to make things more complicated to justify their PhDs," Newton said.
But Striebig is committed to the idea of quantifying smells because it "is the only way to identify cause of odor and suggest change in industrial waste treatment," he said.
And that would suit just about everybody, Newton added.
"There have been times when I've driven up to a hog farm and just stepping out of my car has made me lose my lunch....The smell of putrefied open sewer is enough to take your head off," she said.