Swine Flu’s Flunkies

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One would be hard put to find anything positive about the recent outbreak of swine flu. However, it has generated a healthy discussion—first via blogs and later, after being goaded by those same blogs, by the general media—over the price we are paying for allowing large-scale factory meat companies like Smithfield Foods to have their way in communities here and abroad. Swine flu may have faded from the headlines for now, but swine factories remain a nightmarish presence for all too many rural residents.

As you read this, a team of scientists from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health and the Mexican government is taking blood samples and swabbing the insides of pigs’ nostrils in an attempt to figure out if swine are the direct source of the H1N1 novel virus. Hopefully we’ll know more by the end of the week.

Pigs are under suspicion not just because the H1N1 novel virus is the result of gene swapping between two existing swine flu viruses (it was originally reported that the gene mix involved human, avian and swine viruses, but now scientists are saying that’s less likely). It turns out, as Grist magazine’s Tom Philpott first reported in this country, that ground zero for the flu may be the town of La Gloria, where a subsidiary of Smithfield, the largest pork producer and packer in the world (and a world class polluter), raises tens of thousands of pigs.

Residents of the town have been complaining for years about the millions of gallons of liquid manure produced by the facility and the resulting air and water pollution. And Mexican health officials have suggested that manure-loving flies may have transported the flu to area residents; despite denials by some commentators, flies can be a source of influenza transmission.

Whether or not scientists find definitive proof that the swine flu outbreak originated in this Smithfield operation, this fact remains: any livestock production system that relies on tight confinement and the production of lakes-full of liquid manure is a risk to the environment, our communities, and yes, human health.

These concerns — environmental, health, social — are why the Land Stewardship Project responds when rural Minnesotans call on us because a factory farm proposes to plunk itself down in their community. Despite all the PR money from agribusiness and commodity groups, Minnesotans know that factory farms are not good for the land, the water or people.

Commodity groups like the National Pork Producers Council have confused the H1N1 issue by launching an all-out media/advertising blitz that has a simple message: you cannot get swine flu from eating pork. They are correct, and one can hardly blame them for wanting to get that message out, in light of how the flu scare has sent pork markets plummeting and sent some export customers packing. But the large-scale pork industry and its supporters have also used their time in the media spotlight to dismiss out of hand any suggestion that raising hogs in industrialized operations has its problems.

A full-page ad in the May 3 Sunday Star Tribune (funded by the Minnesota Pork Board, Minnesota Pork Producers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council—farmers’ checkoff dollars at work!), made it clear pork is safe to eat. But then the ad went on to imply that hogs, and thus hog CAFOs, have next to nothing to do with the outbreak.

The ad cited quotes from health and government officials that no swine herd in the U.S., or even the world, had shown signs of being infected with the H1N1 novel virus. Unfortunately, that paper was printed on Saturday, May 2. By the time people were reading the ad over their Sunday breakfast, there was already a report that a swine herd in Alberta, Canada, had been infected, allegedly by a worker who had just returned from Mexico. Almost 500 pigs had to be killed on that operation because the resulting quarantine made it impossible to market even healthy animals, creating overcrowded conditions.

The government and mainstream media’s willingness to kowtow to the large-scale pork industry and replace the name “swine flu” with “H1N1 novel flu” may help pork sales, but it’s a bit dishonest, considering the facts:

  • Scientists have been predicting for years what any average livestock farmer can tell you: pack enough animals into a small enough space and you’ve created a virulent viral soup. A report produced by Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Helath found that “Animals in such close confinement, along with some of the feed and animal management methods employed in the system, increase pathogen risks and magnify opportunities for transmission from animals to humans.” Pathogens can survive in manure applied to fields for between three and six months.
  • Pigs serve as a “mixing vessel” for flus like this one, so that even if the genetic heritage has human or avian roots, hogs are the pot that cooks the soup, say scientists like virologist Ruben Donis of the Centers for Disease Control.
  • Influenza outbreaks—not necessarily this current H1N1 strain—have been popping up in U.S. swine herds for decades. One estimate is that 30 percent to 50 percent of commercial U.S. swine have been infected with swine flu.
  • In February, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported that a 3-year-old boy in that state had become infected with an H1N1 virus (it is related to the current swine flu that’s in the news, but it’s not exactly the same thing). It turns out the boy had been in close contact with a sick swine herd.
  • Studies have shown that 15 percent to 25 percent of U.S. hog farmers might have been infected with swine flu viruses (again, not the H1N1 novel virus everyone is talking about, but related strains), according to a brochure developed by the USDA, CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 10 percent of veterinarians may have been infected with various forms of swine flu, according to this same brochure, which is titled, tellingly, Swine Influenza (flu) in pigs and people.
  • There is growing evidence that MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infections are jumping from pigs to humans here and in Europe.

This is just a sampling of the relationship between factory livestock production and human health problems. Closer to home, LSP members in Renville County and other parts of the state long ago learned the hazards of living next to millions of gallons of liquid manure. Hydrogen sulfide being emitted from hog facilities made people sick and resulted in precedent-setting state laws related to the gas.

As the Columbia Journalism Review pointed out, the mainstream media was prompted by Philpott and other bloggers to begin covering the possible Smithfield-swine flu connection. Some media outlets have done an excellent job of “second-day follow-up.” Coverage in the Toronto Star and on Nightline in particular stands out.

But there has also been some disappointing coverage. For example, the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Pork Producers Association and National Pork Producers Council orchestrated stories on CNN and Minnesota Public Radio that came to this conclusion: humans are more of a threat to factory pigs, than factory pigs are to us.

One of the oddest Associated Press dispatches on the subject ran May 3 on the BusinessWeek website. It said simply that Smithfield Foods had “reaffirmed” that there is “no evidence of so-called swine flu in any of its swine herds or employees at its facilities.” The short article then went on to acknowledge that an Alberta swine herd was infected. But, the AP report made pains to conclude that Smithfield does not raise or process hogs in Canada. Huh? Is this a story about swine flu’s connection to pigs, or a piece on how lily-white Smithfield is?

It’s also been disappointing to see how some of factory farming’s old friends have rallied behind it to push their same tired agendas. Minnesota Ag Commissioner Gene Hugoson, a consistent advocate of mega-livestock and no friend of local control, recently authored an op-ed in Agri News where he took to task “attempts by a few groups to turn this legitimate human health concern into a tool for advancing an agenda opposing pork production.”

Perhaps with the exception of radical animal rights groups like PETA, I’m not seeing that. It seems most of the concern that’s been voiced is directed at factory pork production, which is not the same as family farm pork production in general.

But then, Hugoson has always had a hard time telling the difference.

It’s to industrial ag’s advantage to lump small and moderate-sized family farms in with mega-sized CAFOs. That makes it harder for scientists, healthcare professionals, environmentalists and consumers to find the right target and criticize some of the negative results of factory livestock production without besmirching all types of animal farming.

This is not only disingenuous, but denies society the ability to support and promote sustainable livestock systems that don’t pose threats to the environment, human health and rural communities.

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