Friday, August 31, 2012

Fun With Fungus, Maybe Not.

In addition to getting to the story three months late, yesterday's New York Times piece about Kentucky's whiskey fungus and the recent lawsuits regarding it conveyed some false impressions.

For example, the reporting of a 2007 study in which the fungus was formally named, along with quotations from plaintiffs calling it 'mysterious,' makes it seem like something new. Reported much later is the fact that the fungus has been observed around distilled spirits warehouses since at least 1870. The 2007 study is merely the most recent of many.

The reporter, Melena Ryzik, also waits until the very end of a fairly long article to point out that there is "no evidence ... whiskey fungus causes health problems in humans or animals." In fact, generations of exposure provides pretty convincing evidence that it does not. Even the plaintiffs, no doubt carefully coached by their lawyer, William F. McMurry, have as their biggest complaint that when they clean the stuff off, it grows back.

So, by the way, does the mildew in your shower. Who are you going to sue about that?

For readers who have not experienced it personally, the whiskey fungus is very similar to common mildew.

Lawyers have to make a living, of course, and these recent cases appear to be nothing more than a bid by McMurry to make a little money for himself, and maybe even for the plaintiffs. According to the Times, McMurry wants the courts to order distillers to “stop off-gasing ethanol," an ominous-sounding but completely made-up term. He further claims that "this is not going to affect their bottom line and the flavor of whiskey," which is, of course, nonsense. Any mitigation that prevents ethanol vapors from leaving the distillery grounds will surely do both.

And for what?

All of this fuss is about something natural and harmless. Some consider it unsightly, but it washes off with soap, water, and a little elbow grease. The companies being sued have to be careful about what they say so this story is being reported mostly from the point-of-view of the poor, aggrieved plaintiffs, which makes for a better story anyway.

The plaintiffs brought these lawsuits hoping to make some money, but may have outsmarted themselves if by publicizing the fungus and making it seem worse than it is they depress their property values.

It's impossible to predict what will happen, but nothing should come of this. Only one thing has changed in recent years and that is production volume. Kentucky's distilleries are making, and therefore aging, more whiskey now than they have in more than 40 years. That likely means there is more fungus where it was before and it's probably spreading further than it did before, so more people are affected.

Any reasonable weighing of the economic good of a robust whiskey business against the ostensible harm of the fungus has to come out on the industry's side, but that word 'reasonable' is the caveat. Unbalanced reporting by the esteemed New York Times doesn't help.


Dave said...

Rather than complaining about litigiousness, or the New York Times, why not do an honest piece about corporate responsibility, or lack thereof which is the real issue at hand. I haven't read anything that disputes the impact of whisk(e)y production on the growth of the Baudoinia fungus. So there seems to be broad agreement that the spread of the fungus is a mess that is created by the distilling industry. Why them shouldn't the burden of mitigating this impact be borne by the industry that profits from its creation? Honest allocation of the real cost of industrial impacts on society should the cornerstone of a free market society. This can be done one of several ways, through government regulation, through the courts, or through a industry pro-actively taking responsibility for their impacts and voluntarily bearing the costs of their mitigation. If the bourbon industry doesn't want to be sued or regulated then why can't they take responsibility for the mess the fungus makes in the surrounding community and either clean it up, or make restitution to those that do? If this requires the cost of a bottle of bourbon to increase then so be it. Why should an industry keep all the revenues and expect the rest of society to bear the costs of cleaning up the mess they create? Most businesses make the calculation that turning a blind eye to problems they create and lawyering up to fight any challenge is the most profitable business strategy. If they worked pro-actively with the community to recognize and resolve problems they would find the courts extremely hostile to these kinds of litigations, but I'm not holding my breath.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Pretty argument, Dave, but misdirected. Have you ever been around this stuff? I have, and there's nothing to it. It's harmless. Some might even welcome it as a symbol of local prosperity. Of course, you don't make a friend of me by accusing me of dishonesty right out of the box either, Dave.

sam k said...

I'd also be willing to bet that none of the homeowners involved purchased those properties prior to the erection of the distillery itself. It's kind of like buying a house next to a farm and then complaining about the smell..

Michael Mills said...

Chuck, If you are so damn smart come down here to Kentucky and put your "elbow grease" into cleaning up this mess. It is a time-consuming and expensive procedure to have your house cleaned every year or two, just to keep it looking decent. To compare it to mildew in a shower is ridiculous. That is like comparing a termite infestation to a fly in the house.
The fungus has decreased property values considerably, if you can sell them at all.
And to say that the distilleries were thee first is also a ridiculous argument. No one was aware of this problem when our houses were built or bought. Many industries have been sued or fined for pollution problems long after they occurred. I have been involved in some myself, as a state regulator.
Preventing pollution or harm to neighbors is, or should be, part of doing business in a free society.

Chuck Cowdery said...

While I appreciate the perspective, the statement that "no one was aware of this problem when our houses were built or bought," is false. Just because you don't know about something doesn't make it universally unknown.

Michael Mills said...

Wrong again Chuck. Most of the houses, including ours, were built here were before the identification of Baudoinia. In addition, even though the distillery is less than 1/2 mile away, it is not visible from here. At that time, no one was aware that a potential problem existed or what a nuisance it would be. You are obviously out of your depth on this issue, and need to do your research before posting. "Shoot first, and take aim later" is the latest catchphrase for your methodology, I believe.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Please keep this civil, Michael. Disagree without being disagreeable. Consider the possibility that you've been fed a line. I've personally been aware of the fungus now known (apparently) as Baudoninia since about 1991, I've seen it at every distillery in the United States. It has been identified and associated with spirits aging for about 140 years. It's nothing new. So you're definitely wrong about that. Whether or not it's a nuisance that rises to the level of a harm is probably for a court to decide. I hope you have a satisfactory outcome.

Michael Mills said...

I wasn't trying to be uncivil, but when you call people liars that is uncivil also. If you had to deal with this mess, you would be frustrated too. And I don't really know what you mean by "fed a line", but I consider that as dismissive. I did not say the fungus was unknown, only that it has only recently been identified and associated with the problems off distillery properties. I had seen the same problems on state vehicles where I worked as far back as the eighties, but no one knew what it was or what caused it. As you are probably aware, one distiller in Louisville has recently been cited for their emissions. Just because a source of pollution has only been recently identified doesn't let the polluter off the hook. That has been decided in courts over and over.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't recall calling anyone a liar, but I do believe this issue is being over-hyped and exaggerated. There's nothing new here. Nothing was 'just recently discovered.'

Michael Mills said...

Your statement that: "no one was aware of this problem when our houses were built or bought," is false, basically says I am lying. At least acknowledge what you say. And to say "I do believe this issue is being over-hyped and exaggerated" is condescending and dismissive. I said the fungus was only recently "identified" and the off-site problems realized. We will see how the courts decide on this.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I don't think you're lying. You believe something that isn't true. That's a mistake, not a lie.

Unknown said...

I have to say that this isn't true... "time-consuming and expensive procedure to have your house cleaned every year or two, just to keep it looking decent."

We safely and inexpensively clean away the fungus easily.