Swine Flu and the Monstrous Power of the Livestock Conglomerates

The nature of the livestock industry has been transformed dramatically. Photo by Oleg Popov / Reuters.

The swine flu crisis lays bare the meat industry’s monstrous power

The Mexico swine flu outbreak should alert us to a highly globalized industry with global political clout.

By Mike Davis / April 27, 2009

The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the fecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever. The initial outbreaks across North America reveal an infection already travelling at higher velocity than did the last official pandemic strain, the 1968 Hong Kong flu.

Stealing the limelight from our officially appointed assassin, H5N1, this porcine virus is a threat of unknown magnitude. It seems less lethal than Sars in 2003, but as an influenza it may be more durable than Sars. Given that domesticated seasonal type-A influenzas kill as many one million people a year, even a modest increment of virulence, especially if combined with high incidence, could produce carnage equivalent to a major war.

Meanwhile, one of its first victims has been the consoling faith, long preached by the World Health Organisation, that pandemics can be contained by the rapid responses of medical bureaucracies, independent of the quality of local public health. Since the initial H5N1 deaths in Hong Kong in 1997, the WHO, with the support of most national health services, has promoted a strategy focused on the identification and isolation of a pandemic strain within its local radius of outbreak, followed by a thorough dousing of the population with antivirals and (if available) vaccine.

An army of sceptics has contested this viral counter-insurgency approach, pointing out that microbes can now fly around the world (quite literally in the case of avian flu) faster than WHO or local officials can react to the original outbreak. They also pointed to the primitive, often non-existent surveillance of the interface between human and animal diseases. But the mythology of bold, preemptive (and cheap) intervention against avian flu has been invaluable to the cause of rich countries, like the US and UK, who prefer to invest in their own biological Maginot lines rather than dramatically increasing aid to epidemic frontlines overseas, as well as to big pharma, which has battled developing-world demands for the generic, public manufacture of critical antivirals like Roche’s Tamiflu.

The swine flu may prove that the WHO/Centres for Disease Control version of pandemic preparedness — without massive new investment in surveillance, scientific and regulatory infrastructure, basic public health, and global access to lifeline drugs — belongs to the same class of Ponzified risk management as Madoff securities. It is not so much that the pandemic warning system has failed as it simply doesn’t exist, even in North America and the EU.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Mexico lacks both capacity and political will to monitor livestock diseases, but the situation is hardly better north of the border, where surveillance is a failed patchwork of state jurisdictions, and corporate livestock producers treat health regulations with the same contempt with which they deal with workers and animals. Similarly, a decade of urgent warnings by scientists has failed to ensure the transfer of sophisticated viral assay technology to the countries in the direct path of likely pandemics. Mexico has world-famous disease experts, but it had to send swabs to a Winnipeg lab in order to ID the strain’s genome. Almost a week was lost as a consequence.

But no one was less alert than the disease controllers in Atlanta. According to the Washington Post, the CDC did not learn about the outbreak until six days after Mexico had begun to impose emergency measures. There should be no excuses. The paradox of this swine flu panic is that, while totally unexpected, it was accurately predicted. Six years ago, Science dedicated a major story to evidence that “after years of stability, the North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track.”

Since its identification during the Great Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then in 1998 a highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a farm in North Carolina and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).

Researchers interviewed by Science worried that one of these hybrids might become a human flu (both the 1957 and 1968 pandemics are believed to have originated from the mixing of bird and human viruses inside pigs), and urged the creation of an official surveillance system for swine flu: an admonition, of course, that went unheeded in a Washington prepared to throw away billions on bioterrorism fantasies

This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal “drift” and episodic genomic “shift.” But the corporate industrialisation of livestock production has broken China’s natural monopoly on influenza evolution. Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.

In 1965, for instance, there were 53 million US hogs on more than one million farms; today, 65 million hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

Last year a commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a report on “industrial farm animal production” that underscored the acute danger that “the continual cycling of viruses. . . in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission.” The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (cheaper than humane environments) was sponsoring the rise of resistant staph infections, while sewage spills were producing outbreaks of E coli and pfiesteria (the protozoan that has killed 1bn fish in Carolina estuaries and made ill dozens of fishermen).

Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology would have to confront the monstrous power of livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Farms (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The commission reported systemic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers.

This is a highly globalized industry with global political clout. Just as Bangkok-based chicken giant Charoen Pokphand was able to suppress inquiries into its role in the spread of bird flu in southeast Asia, so it is likely that the forensic epidemiology of the swine flu outbreak will pound its head against the corporate stonewall of the pork industry.

This is not to say that a smoking gun will never be found: there is already gossip in the Mexican press about an influenza epicentre around a huge Smithfield subsidiary in Veracruz state. But what matters more (especially given the continued threat of H5N1) is the larger configuration: the WHO’s failed pandemic strategy, the further decline of world public health, the stranglehold of big pharma over lifeline medicines, and the planetary catastrophe of industrialised and ecologically unhinged livestock production.

[Mike Davis is professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu.]

Source / Guardian, U.K.

For a Spanish language translation of this article, go here.

Thanks to Carlos Lowry / The Rag Blog

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6 Responses to Swine Flu and the Monstrous Power of the Livestock Conglomerates

  1. Jay D. Jurie says:

    Think Andersonville for pigs.

    Years ago Florida voters passed a Constitutional amendment against industrial livestock production.

    Other states need to follow suit.

  2. It’s a good article. Since I have the flu’, and confirmed my son who came in from Ohio on the 8th of April, was confirmed with it on April 24, we both know how miserable this is.

    I did some research on the Smithfield situation; seems viable.

    Also, since I buy from Smart & Final; they have most of their stores in Mexico, California, Arizona, and Nevada (and sell to restaurants who have chains all over the country), I think something should be done about looking into that as well.

    The fact the C-Span has held a long series of reports by our ‘leaders’, that say that no one can get the flu’ from swine or any other live-stock, soy-beans, corn (or the like), but only from another human leads me to believe they’re trying to cover this from an ECONOMIC situation, rather than a medical and human welfare situation.

    I’ll send Richard a few of the articles I found since I’ve been pretty sickened not only by this flu’, but by the propaganda……

  3. Here’s the article; leaving it as a ‘comment’:

    The outbreak of a new flu strain—a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses—has infected 1,000 people in Mexico and the U.S., killing 68. The World Health Organization warned Saturday that the outbreak could reach global pandemic levels.

    Is Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork packer and hog producer, linked to the outbreak? Smithfield operates massive hog-raising operations Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated. The operations, grouped under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carroll, raise 950,000 hogs per year, according to the company Web site.

    On Friday, the U.S. Disease-tracking blog Biosurveillance published a timeline of the outbreak containing this nugget, dated April 6 (major tip of the hat to Paula Hay, who alerted me to the Smithfield link on the Comfood listserv and has written about it on her blog, Peak Oil Entrepreneur):

    Residents [of Perote] believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.

    From what I can tell, the possible link to Smithfield has not been reported in the U.S. Press. Searches of Google News and the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all came up empty. The link is being made in the Mexican media, however. “Granjas Carroll, causa de epidemia en La Gloria,” declared a headline in the Vera Cruz-based paper La Marcha. No need to translate that, except to point out that La Gloria is the village where the outbreak seems to have started. Judging from the article, Mexican authorities treat hog CAFOs with just as much if not more indulgence than their peers north of the border, to the detriment of surrounding communities and the general public health. Get this:

    De acuerdo con uno de Los habitantes de la comunidad, Eli Ferrer Cortés, Los desechos fecales y orgánicos que produce Granjas Carroll no son tratados adecuadamente, lo que genera contaminación del agua y del viento en la region.

    My rough translation: According to one community resident, the organic and fecal waste produced by Granjas Carrol isn’t adequately treated, creating water and air pollution in the region. I witnessed—and smelled—the same thing in Hardin County, Iowa, a couple of years ago, another area marked by intensive industrial hog production. The article goes on to say that area residents have long complained of “fetid odors” in the air and water, and swarms of flies hovering around waste lagoons. Like their counterparts who live in CAFO-heavy U.S. Areas, they also complain of respiratory ailments. Now, with 30 percent of the area’s residents now infected with the virulent flu bug, people are demanding that state and federal authorities inspect hog operations there. So far, reports La Marcha, the response has been: nada.

    The Mexico City daily La Jornada has also made the link. According to the newspaper, the Mexican health agency IMSS has acknowledged that the original carrier for the flu could be the “clouds of flies” that multiply in the Smithfield subsidiary’s manure lagoons.

    I’ll be in touch with contacts in Mexico as this story develops —and I’ll be curious to see whether the U.S. Media explores the link with Smithfield’s Mexico operation.

    Note: In the original version of this post, I had called production at Granjas Carroll “nearly equal to Smithfield’s total U.S. Production.” I had been confusing total production at Granjas Carroll—950,000 hogs produced in fiscal 2008—with the number of sows, or breeding pigs, kept by Smithfield in the United States. According to my source—“Concentration of Ag Markets, 2007” (PDF) by Hendrickson and Heffernan—Smithfield keeps 1.2 million sows. Actual hog production is much larger—thus Smithfield’s total U.S. Hog production is much larger than Granjas Carroll’s. I regret the error.

    Grist food editor Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

  4. From Consumer Reports’ blogger:

    Swine Flu: Hog farm connection should be investigated

    We know the outbreak began in Mexico, but there’s still many questions about where exactly the virus originated and spread to humans. While health organizations continue to investigate, the press is now reporting a potential link between Smithfield, one of the largest industrial hog producers, and a village near a hog plant in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.

    Tom Philpott, a columnist for the online magazine, grist, first wrote about reports in the Mexican press about a possible link between a Smithfield subsidiary’s industrial hog facilities in Perote, Vera Cruz, and the spread of disease in a nearby village. (disclosure: I once stayed on Philpott’s farm in North Carolina, and dined on his delicious food.)

    The Guardian and the Associated Press have both picked up on the story. The Guardian reported that one boy tested positive for swine flu, but that 60 percent of the town’s population had come down with a “strange” respiratory illness.

    Smithfield has issued a statement saying, “Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico. The company also noted that its joint ventures in Mexico routinely administer influenza virus vaccination to their swine herds and conduct monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza.”
    The situation remains unclear, but we hope that health organization investigate the reported link. “If 60% of the population near a huge swine farm comes down with flu-like symptoms, and given the science of this particular swine flu strain, then it is prudent for officials to carefully investigate by testing pigs from nearby farms, small and large, including the Smithfield facility,” says Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumers Union.

    Hansen also spoke to Aaron French of the blog, Civil Eats, which reports that the nonprofit, Food and Water Watch, has sent a letter to Congress asking them to push for an investigation into the “source of the virus, the pathway for transmission between hogs and humans, and conditions inside hog confinement operations that could foster the growth and mutation of the influenza virus into more virulent strains.”

  5. Mariann says:

    As has been stated succinctly in the Rag Blog by frequent food correspondent Janet Gilles, speaking, I believe, of the beef industry, keeping large numbers of animals in close quarters and routinely administering antibiotics (or antiviral drugs) in fact creates ideal conditions for microorganisms to mutate, or, as I prefer to say, evolve.

    Yep, evolution, taking place right inside (some of) our very noses. G-d works in mysterious ways to educate his children.

  6. I just posted this article on one of my blogs – more on this ‘topic’…

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009
    About this H1N1 – just WHO might be losing money (Smithfield), and WHO is going to make big $$$$ (all the makers of the vaccine)….

    Here’s a very interesting article – I’m sharing it from an e-mail sent to me by someone who’s doing some serious research on this via the I-net:

    Cover-Up: Mexican Government Lying About Swine Flu by Fintan Dunne, BreakForNews.com, 29th April, 2009, 07:00 EST
    Amid a growing international focus on a suspicious mass flu
    outbreak around intensive pig production facilities in Mexico, government
    officials there have resorted to lying about the type of flu which struck
    hundreds of locals.
    At a press conference on Monday,
    Mexican Health Minister José Ángel Córdova assured the media that a flu outbreak
    in the town of La Gloria was not Swine Flu, but an already-known and different
    flu strain. The town is set among 72 industrial pig production facilities
    part-owned by the multinational Smithfield Foods.
    He said that of 35 mucous samples taken from flu victims, only one sample matched the Swine Flu strain which is causing international concern. That sample was taken from Edgar Hernandez Hernandez, a 4-year-old local boy who fell ill and has now recovered.
    Local Veracruz governor Fidel
    Herrera echoed his Health Minister’s comments on Tuesday, stating that: “there
    is not a single indicator” to suggest La Gloria was the epicenter of Mexico’s
    Swine Flu outbreak.
    The government position is that barring this single boy, the rest of the samples indicate locals fell foul of the known flu strain H2N3, not the new variant A/H1N1 strain.
    But there is a serious flaw in the Mexican
    government’s public position. After hundreds of mucous samples had been
    collected from flu victims across Mexico, health officials took a small subset
    of those samples and in mid-April sent them out of Mexico to US laboratories for
    further scientific analysis. Of the 35 samples they had secured from the
    inhabitants of La Gloria, only one sample was included in that smaller subset
    sent to the US. That sample was the one taken from 4-year-old Edgar Hernandez
    So the Mexican Government wants us to believe that by sheer chance they happened to pick the only A/H1N1 sample in La Gloria, and that the other 34 samples still in the custody of Mexican health authorities are the known H2N3 strain!
    A trivial calculation show that the odds of that serendipitous sample selection are 35 to 1. Those odds against the Mexican government increase when we consider that residents of La Gloria say that they had symptoms which were identical to those reported by Swine Flu victims across Mexico.
    La Gloria resident Jose Luis Martinez, told Associated Press that he heard a description of the symptoms of other Mexican victims on television: fever, coughing, joint aches, severe headache, vomiting and diarrhea. “..We said to ourselves, ‘This is what we had. The symptoms they are suffering are the same that we had here.”Writing from La Gloria for the London Guardian, Jo Tuckman recounts the experience of another local:
    “I watch what is going on in Mexico City and we say to each other that is exactly what happened to us,” says Rosa Jimenez, as she walks down the road holding her toddler’s hand with a filthy mask around her neck. She notes that many families in La Gloria have relatives who work in Mexico City but came back to the village for the Easter week celebrations. “Could that be how it spread to the capital?” she asks.Reporting from Mexico City for the London Independent, Ioan Grillo heard similar stories:
    “We have been fighting this disease for months now and complaining about the pig waste for years,” said La Gloria resident Erasto Bautista, 45, talking by telephone from the state capital Veracruz. “We are glad to see that the world is finally listening to us.” Like many other residents, Mr Bautista often works on building sites in Mexico City, explaining how the flu could have quickly spread here and make it the world epicenter in the virus. Mr Bautista said he himself fell sick from the flu in January, keeping him bed ridden for a week. “My head was so painful it almost exploded. The body aches were so strong that I couldn’t move,” he said, describing symptoms strikingly similar to those plaguing swine flu sufferers in Mexico City hospital beds.”When residents of La Gloria began to get seriously ill from as far back as mid-February, health officials astonishingly downplayed their severe symptoms as merely atypical colds.
    Nevertheless locals say they were told the ‘cold’ was probably caused by the flies from the pig farms, and fumigation teams were sent to get rid of the flies.The official line rubbishing any possible link between the Swine Flu outbreak and the wealthy multinational Smithfield Foods will hardly come as a surprise to La Gloria locals. In previous years, some of them have been jailed for protesting the effect of the company’s million-pig-per-annum operations on them and their environment.
    A resident speaking anonymously to the London Guardian said: “This is a company with lots of power and lots of dollars. They have always been protected by the government and there is not much we can do about it.”The Mexican government’s handling of the flu outbreak hasn’t impressed people outside of La Gloria either. One Mexican told Associated Press: “Nobody believes the government anymore.”But the officials are nothing but insistent in their claims “This virus did not start in this area. It originated in Asia and spread into Mexico via the United States,” said Veracruz governor Fidel Herrera when visiting La Gloria. Considering the odds against their public claims, if Mexican officials were to repeat their position in court, a judge might well warn them that lying under oath is a serious business. And if they persisted they could face prosecution for perjury and even jail.What are the odds of that happening? About the same odds as the odds of Smithfield Foods owner Joseph Luter III, described as the world’s richest “pig baron”, giving up his vast fortune; starting a sustainable farm; and befriending some of the 27 million pigs his company slaughters every year.

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