Andy Curliss, who has led the N.C. Pork Council for four years, is leaving at the end of this week to become director of external affairs at industry giant Smithfield Foods. Gene Nemechek of Wilson, a swine veterinarian formerly with Zoetis, was named interim CEO.
Curliss was an investigative reporter and editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh before leaving in 2015 to join Buffalo, N.Y.-based Gelia, a marketing company with clients including Caterpillar and Purolator. He then moved to the pork group, which has annual revenue of about $2 million, mostly from a federal checkoff program aimed at promoting the “other white meat.”
Environmentalists, animal rights groups and social justice activists have long attacked the pork industry, which grew so fast in the 1980s and ’90s that state lawmakers imposed a moratorium banning new farms that rely on waste lagoons in 1997. It’s made for an interesting four years for Curliss, who says he’s proud of having strengthened the industry’s communications and marketing efforts.
He says his favorite achievement was creating a stronger connection between the council and N.C. A&T State University, which operates significant swine research. The Greensboro school now has a nonvoting representative on the council’s board, a similar position to N.C. State University, which has one of the nation’s leading ag schools.
The group has fought lots of permitting and legal battles during Curliss’ tenure. Most notable were the odor-related cases involving hogs grown under contract at Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown, which get processed at the company’s giant Bladen County plant. Plaintiffs received jury awards of nearly $550 million in five trials in 2018-19, though the awards were reduced to about $98 million because state law limited punitive damages. Some of the litigation remains under appeal by Murphy-Brown, Curliss says.
A more fun project was this year’s Summer of ‘Cue, which helped drive traffic to 144 participating barbecue restaurants across the state. Visiting five sites before Labor Day enabled one to win a T-shirt, along with the appreciation of some hard-hit dining establishments.
Smithfield Foods had $16 billion in revenue last year and employs more than 55,000 people. Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., the largest shareholder of China’s biggest meat producer, bought the company for $7 billion in 2013. Shuanghui is now known as WH Group.