Legal fight over Sioux Falls pork plant would focus on definition of slaughterhouse
Wholestone Farms believes the butcher shop they are building on the site of its planned processing facility qualifies under current city ordinance. Opposition says a small operation is not the same as processing 6 million hogs a year.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – What is a slaughterhouse?
It’s a question that likely will be at the core of any legal challenge of Wholestone Farms plans to build a pork processing plant in northeast Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Construction is underway on a small custom butchery at the Wholestone site, near the intersection of Benson Road and Interstate 229.
Is that a slaughterhouse? It may or may not seem so conceptually, depending on your perspective on the issue, but the law being the law, concepts require definitions. According to the Sioux Falls Code of Ordinances that is: “A facility for the slaughtering and processing of animals and the refining of their byproducts.”
Wholestone is a cooperative owned by about 200 farmers from across the area, including about 75 within 50 miles of Sioux Falls. The cooperative purchased an existing plant in Fremont, Nebraska, in 2018 with plans to expand elsewhere.
The Sioux Falls plant would be built from scratch, with hopes to process up to 6 million pigs a year in the future. They say the butchery meets that definition of a slaughterhouse so the larger plant won’t be affected by the results of a citywide vote that would ban any future operations.
Smart Growth Sioux Falls, the group that gathered signatures to put the issue on the ballot, says a bit of construction does not a slaughterhouse make.
“It’s like a butcher shop by Ikea,” said Sioux Falls lawyer Brendan Johnson, who is a former U.S. attorney and counsel to Smart Growth. “I don't think that a court is going to say, ‘You threw this up a couple weeks before election so it grandfathers you in to build a 6 million hog processing facility.’ This doesn't meet the definition of a slaughterhouse.”
Sioux Falls already has one pork processor in the city limits. That’s Smithfield, which first started operation in 1911, near downtown Sioux Falls.
Smart Growth says the city doesn’t need another plant, and the potential odor, water quality and traffic issues that would come with it. They don’t oppose animal processing in general, just not in the city limits.
Wholestone refutes the image that the new plant will have odor and water quality issues. This is a new facility using the latest technology for odor mitigation and its own water treatment system. The comparison to Smithfield, or the meatpacking industry of the past, is simply incorrect, they say.
The vote is Nov. 8, the same day as the congressional midterms and the gubernatorial election. That means turnout is sure to be substantially higher than a traditional municipal election for city council, or even mayor. How that affects the outcome is up for discussion, but over the next several weeks, Sioux Falls voters are sure to hear different interpretations on the definition.
Luke Minion, chairman of the board for Wholestone Farms, said that he doesn’t see how the butchery, which will slaughter and process pigs, doesn't qualify.
“The more that you look into it, you will find the answer is we meet the definition of a slaughterhouse, period,” Minion said. “There’s nothing to take us to court about.”
The other half of the definition, “refining of their byproducts,” refers to the bits of the pig that aren’t part of the carcass after it’s dressed. Byproducts are up to 30% of the liveweight of a hog, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That includes the indelible stuff such as the hide, it’s also the “variety meats,” like tongue and heart. They aren’t without value. From 2001 to 2010, these byproducts represented from 14-19% of the overall value of a pig, according to the USDA.
The outcome of the election will influence any legal action, to be sure.
If voters say they don’t want any new slaughterhouses in the city, Smart Growth will press ahead with legal action.
Wholestone can’t just say the election doesn’t apply to their operation, Johnson said.
“That’s not the way it works,” he said. “In my experience what South Dakota voters do not like, whether you are a large corporation or state government, they don’t like it when you negate the will of the voters.”
Should voters defeat the measure, it’s less clear. Johnson said, like a football coach before a big game, he doesn’t want to discuss a strategy before it’s executed.
“I’d have to consult with my clients on that but I think if the people of Sioux Falls say they want another slaughterhouse in the city that would make stopping it difficult to do.”
Beyond the definition, the butchery has a lot of positives for farmers and consumers, Minion said.
They plan to process 10 to 20 pigs a week. It will be open to anyone in the community who wants to purchase one, he said.
“We’ve already had multiple people order hogs,” Minion said.
Wholestone always had plans for something similar to the butchery, but the ballot initiative forced them to pick up the pace. The cooperative has been transparent and thorough every step of the way, Minion said.
“The ballot initiative might affect future companies,” he said. “But for us we are on our way. We have started construction.”