1996Public Service

Law restricts hog information, even from N.C. officials

Disclosure bill used instead for secrecy
Pat Stith and Joby Warrick
N&O Staff Writers
February 19, 1995

A portable sprayer spreads hog wastewater from a lagoon onto a field southeast of Fayetteville. (N&O photo by Robert Willett)

The N.C. Department of Agriculture, at the urging of the pork industry, got a law passed in 1993 to prevent a state environmental protection agency from finding out where hogs -- and hog waste -- are concentrated.

Legislators approved the law after hearing from an agriculture department official who said it was needed to allow the release of information. Instead, the law has been used to withhold data on hog farms.

As a result, the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources is spending about $100,000 to gather its own information on hog farms -- the same information the Department of Agriculture already collects at taxpayer expense.

Researchers working in DEHNR's coastal management division won't get the data they need until 1997, when their department's farm survey is finished.

"For the purpose of my program, I need data now," said Lisa Huff, a coordinator with coastal management. "We managed human waste, for God's sake. It's time we started managing animal waste."

The agriculture department's database includes farms' longitude and latitude, which means their location may be pinpointed relative to streams, roads and other landmarks. The computerized farm mapping program is used to combat pseudorabies, a disease that can be fatal to pigs.

The department gives maps, showing the locations of quarantined farms, to hog and poultry corporations looking for sites for new farms.

In early 1992, the department's Pseudorabies Task Force, which is dominated by industry representatives, found out that outsiders were making requests for the data. The task force asked the department attorney, David S. McLeod, for an opinion on what information the agriculture department had to release.

McLeod replied that state law already prohibited disclosure of "trade secrets" and that each farm owner's herd size probably qualified as a trade secret. But farm location was not protected.

A few months later, Research Triangle Institute, which was working on a project for DEHNR, asked the Agriculture Department for the number of swine in the Albemarle-Pamlico river basins.

The department says it did not answer the letter. Instead, top agriculture officials met with commodity representatives, on Aug. 26, 1992, and began mustering support to tighten the disclosure law and close off access.

"When the people in the swine industry became aware that data we had prior to '93 was public record, they as much as told us, 'Well, if we don't get this law changed, then pork producers are going to stop giving the state this information,'" McLeod said in an interview.

George Edwards, the state veterinarian, told the House Agriculture Committee on March 2, 1993, that the department's bill would allow the state veterinarian to share confidential farm information whenever necessary to carry out the department's animal health programs.

What Edwards said was correct, as far as it went.

The bill also gave the department authority to deny information to the state environmental agency. It said that farm records collected to implement animal health programs could be made public only to assist in that cause.

Thomas J. McGinn, the veterinarian who runs the pseudorabies program and controls the hog database, defends the law. He says hog medical records ought to be confidential, just like human medical records.

The agriculture department has given records to investigators whose findings might help the hog industry while denying them to investigators whose findings might not help the industry.

When N.C. State University researchers asked last year for data to use in a hog odor study ordered by the General Assembly, McGinn asked, "What do pork producers stand to gain from a study attempting to document an economic link between swine odors and the well-being of rural residents?"

The university's response was discussed by the Pseudorabies Task Force on May 18, 1994. The minutes of that meeting show hog companies' influence at the Department of Agriculture.

Murphy Farms president "Jim Stocker moved to respond by supplying information for point of sales and be careful not to make information available to general public," the minutes say. "Motion passed."

The department then told NCSU how many hogs were located within various distances of properties in the university's study. This is the same kind of information the Coastal Management Division was denied.

The environmental agency is working to develop a coastal pollution program by July. It turned to the Agriculture Department last year to find out how many farm animals, including swine, are in coastal watersheds.

The agriculture department is willing to share information on how many hogs are in large geographic areas known as subbasins. But it refuses to provide hog numbers for the smaller watersheds because, in theory, that might disclose how many hogs were on a particular farm.

Agriculture also refused, citing the 1993 law, to share its computerized database. That means the environmental agency will have to double-check information from thousands of farmers the old-fashioned way -- with paper records.

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