The Florence death toll that factory farmers don’t want you to know about

There are roughly 9 million pigs in North Carolina—the same number as people. There are also 819 million chickens and 33.5m turkeys on a multitude of poultry farms and even fish farms.

You’d think after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999 drowned thousands of hogs and millions of birds, farmers would question the wisdom of situating concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in floodplains. You’d be wrong. In fact, in some cases the birds and hog death toll from Florence was double that of previous hurricanes.

Factory farmers said the “flooding exceeded expectations”—it was a “100-year flood”—so they could not move the animals to higher ground. Wouldn’t Matthew and Floyd have raised their “expectations?”

At least 5,500 hogs drowned and 4.1 million birds perished during Hurricane Florence, the latter representing 57 farms and 211 poultry houses. Original estimates of bird deaths were 3.4 million—at least 1.7 million chickens at Sanderson Farms and an undisclosed amount of turkeys at Butterball facilities—but since then the North Carolina Department Of Agriculture And Consumer Services quietly revised the figure upward. Video footage shows “hogs wading neck- deep through floodwaters and dead chickens floating like dirty pillows in the dark water,” reported Indy Week.

Animal welfare activists pleaded with North Carolina meat producers to open barn doors to give animals a “fighting chance” to no avail. “No doubt, until their last minutes, they [the animals] did everything possible to keep their heads above water in a relentless struggle to preserve their own lives. They probably cried out in panic for relief that would never come,” wrote one web site.

North Carolina legislators are well aware of the results of locating CAFOs sites in floodplains. After Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, the state bought and shut down some hog farmers in low-lying areas. After Hurricane Matthew, Smithfield Foods, a subsidiary of Murphy-Brown, faced millions in lawsuits.

But coverage tends to focus on the toxic effects of manure lagoons spilling into waterways and the economic losses to the North Carolina ag industry, not the over four million animals who farmers left to drown.

Who were these factory farmers? Sanderson Farms admitted to 1.7 chicken lost so far and Butterball said “many of our North Carolina-based processing plants, hatcheries and feed mills have been impacted by the storm, and we continue to see flooding and power outages throughout the region.” But the identities of most CAFOs with thousands of drowned animals are hidden.

“In North Carolina, farm level data is protected information,” Heather Overton, assistant director of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told me, referring me to the 1979 confidentiality statute 106-24.1. which states, “All information published by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services pursuant to this Part shall be classified so as to prevent the identification of information received from individual farm operators.”

Such confidentiality laws protect more than the animal toll from Hurricane Florence. They are likely also why the identities of farms with millions of cases of bird flu and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus in recent years were kept secret even as the public continued to buy their products and neighbors and the surrounding environment were jeopardized. Only a handful of photos of bird-flu poultry being “depopulated” and dead piglets dropped into landfills reached the unwitting, deceived public. That is why Overton denied my request to send a photographer to document the disposal of the Hurricane Florence carcasses. (Were they even disposed of or were they sold as “food,” some cynics have asked.)

Confidentiality laws are so unyielding, even when an Alabama and Texas ranch produced cows with the always fatal mad cow disease their identities were kept secret and they were allowed to resume operations in 30 days. If anyone questions whether ag departments serve the public or meat producers there’s your answer.

The volume of animals that factory farmers produce and process is so high, the loss of over four million animals during September’s Hurricane Florence is considered nothing but an “animal cycle” and fully insured. It is not consequential to the factory farm industry—nothing to see here!—which nonetheless hides the gruesome photos from the public to whom it might be consequential.

In addition to the agricultural cruelty, one must marvel as the sheer stupidity of the North Carolina meat producers. “Haven’t we learned by now that referring to hurricanes as ‘once in a lifetime storms,’ or their impact as ’100-year floods,’ suggesting that such an occurrence will never happen again is, to be charitable, seriously inaccurate,” writes Dan Murphy in Pork Business.

Martha Rosenberg is an award-winning investigative public health reporter who covers the food, drug and gun industries. Her first book, “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” is distributed by Random House. Rosenberg has appeared on CSPAN and NPR and lectured at medical schools and at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library.

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