Today in Kansas City, a group of “family farmers”, ranchers, environmentalists, animal welfare activists and other grassroots organizations began their campaign against pork production. The initial targets are the largest pork production operations – beginning with the nation’s No. 1 producer Smithfield Foods.

The umbrella group is the Water Keepers’ Alliance, which encompasses more than 30 local, state, regional and national groups in nine states, and it will become a familiar fixture in the pork production landscape. The goals are many, but among the priorities is 1) to shut down Smithfield’s pork production operations; 2) shut down the use of lagoons and spray fields; 3) move on to other pork production operations.

At a news conference on Feb. 28, the group pledged “to hold massive hog factories accountable for contaminating the environment and destroying rural communities.” The group is charging that “Smithfield Foods has for years knowingly and systematically violated environmental laws.” On March 1, the Alliance will file lawsuits under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the federal Clean Water Act, the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and North Carolina state law. The filings also included one Notice of Intent to Sue in operations in Missouri and four in North Carolina.

To understand the clout and impact that the Alliance carries it is important to note that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is president of the Water Keeper Alliance. It’s equally important to note that many of the lawyers involved are the same ones who successfully took on the tobacco industry. A dozen of the nation’s leading law firms have committed to assisting in the legal effort and have contributed $50,000 each.

Smithfield is not the only target on the radar screen, also note that the Alliance has not defined a “hog factory”. While the group will go after the largest operations first, there’s no indication of operation size limits that their campaign will target.

At the press conference, Kennedy vowed continued action against Smithfield Foods and other major pork producers in every state “where they have fouled the air and water and have brought economic depression to family farmers.” The Alliance has identified possible action in 36 states. Four additional letters of “Intent to Sue” have been mailed to pork operations, nine more are “in the works” and Kennedy expects to send more than 20 in this first phase of attack.

“We are taking the unprecedented step of launching national litigation against the factory hog industry. These are not businessmen making a buck. They are outlaws and bullies who have destroyed thousands of miles of public waterways and aquifers, shattered the lives of tens of thousands of rural Americans, and treated millions of animals with unspeakable and unnecessary cruelty,” Kennedy said. “They have used hefty contributions and political clout to insulate themselves from prosecution for their crimes. Now they ought to know that the marshal has come to Dodge.”

The Alliance is siting the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly called RICO, as their tool of choice. In its RICO-filed complaint, the Alliance charges that “Smithfield's operation is funded by its illegal pollution-based profits.” It goes on to charge that violating environmental laws is an intended part of Smithfield’s business strategy, and that it “unlawfully shifts the cost of handling its pollution to the American public.”

“We will take this fight to every state in the country that’s being harmed by factory farms,” says Scott Dye, the Missouri-based agriculture coordinator for the Sierra Club.

“They call themselves ‘farms’ but these operations have nothing to do with farming. They are industrial complexes that house thousands of animals, each producing two to four times the fecal waste of a person.”

“Smithfield and this industry are turning our air into poison gas and our waters into rivers of death,” Jan Schlichtmann of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann and Bernstein, a member of the coalition’s legal team said. “State and federal regulators don’t have the staffing or budget, and in some cases the will, to go after these mega-polluters.” Schlichtmann is the environmental lawyer whose exploits were chronicled in the book and movie, “A Civil Action.”

The coalition and legal team will continue its investigations and file lawsuits against Smithfield and other industrial hog producers wherever it finds evidence of wrongdoing. “We will use the law to civilize this industry,” Schlichtmann said.

The momentum behind this moment is strong. The Alliance has the legal expertise and money aligned to move this battle forward. Regardless of the legal outcome, the pork industry’s image as a whole will be dragged through the mud before the issue is over. The price in public perception could be substantial, and it will reflect on pork operations nationwide regardless of size because the issue of size is always blurred– After all, what is big?