Sunday, April 26, 2009

Smithfield Ham and Flu

April 26, 2009, 8:00 a.m.; April 27, 2009, 6:00 a.m. (updates), 4:45 p.m. Extra! (See bold heading, "Will Iowans Take Note -- Let Alone Take Charge?" below]; April 28, 2009, 7:15 a.m. (Contents; Times' story); April 29, 2009, 7:30 a.m. (a blog entry that evolves over four days is bound to be a little disjointed and even internally inconsistent; hopefully "Wednesday Morning Thoughts" and the expanded "Contents," below will help), 7:30 p.m. (pork industry gets to President Obama, see "Lipstick on Pigs = "North American Flu"?!," and "Pigs in the Oval Office," below); April 30, 2009, 7:20 a.m. (see below, "Blockbuster: Why Healthy Hogs Harm Humans")

Swine Flu: Another Corporate Greed Externality?
Homegrown Risk to Iowans?

(brought to you by*)


Smithfield's Pork
Smithfield's Hog Lots
The Data: Do Hog Lots Cause Swine Flu?
. Mexican Health Official: Yes
. University of Iowa Researcher: Yes
Blockbuster Extra! They've Known All Along!
Where Are the Media and Experts?
Will Iowans Take Charge?
Can We Eat Ham?
Anyone Care for Some Chinese Ham?
More Sunday Stories
Conclusion: Media Owe Us Investigation
N.Y. Times acknowledges, buries, Smithfield connection
And so does the Times of London
Wednesday Morning Thoughts
. Pigs' Public Relations
. Lipstick on Pigs = "North American Flu"?!
. . Pigs in the Oval Office
. Safe to Eat?
. Risk Assessment
. Springfield's Disingenuous Defenses
. Pigs Politics Mean Investigations Unlikely
. Vegetarian Thoughts
Blockbuster: Why Healthy Hogs Harm Humans

Did Smithfield put the swine into swine flu? Some are suggesting as much.

It's hard to miss the recent media coverage of a new variety of swine flu that is being passed between humans in Mexico, the United States -- and, as of this morning, New Zealand.

Put "swine flu" into Google and you'll get 900,000 hits. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has a special swine flu Web page with numerous links regarding what the World Health Organization says could become a pandemic ("From December 2005 through February 2009, a total of 12 human infections with swine influenza were reported from 10 states in the United States. Since March 2009, a number of confirmed human cases of a new strain of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection in California, Texas, and Mexico have been identified. An investigation into these cases is ongoing").

"Influenza-Like Illness in the United States and Mexico," World Health Organization, April 24, 2009 ("Because there are human cases associated with an animal influenza virus, and because of the geographical spread of multiple community outbreaks, plus the somewhat unusual age groups affected, these events are of high concern"). "[The CDC's] Dr. Anne Schuchat . . . told reporters on Saturday [April 25] . . . that, because of the wide geographic spread of the virus so far, the outbreak is already 'beyond containment.' . . . Earlier in the day, the head of the World Health Organization said that the outbreak has the potential to develop into a pandemic." "WHO Warns of Possible Pandemic as Mexico Seeks to Contain Swine Flu; 3 new cases reported in United States, health officials say," Forbes, April 26, 2009.

Smithfield's Pork. But you'll find the mainstream media's coverage of the possible corporate cause and source of this potential pandemic to be "somewhere between slim and none at all."

Check the Cook It Simply site for herring recipes and you'll find 59 ways to serve herring. That's about how many different herring dishes I remember from a smorgasbord in Sweden some years ago.

And what herring is to the Swedes pig is to Smithfield. You could say they've really gone whole hog. Go to Smithfield's "Our Products" page and all you'll find linked (pardon the expression) besides sausages are "smoked hams," "fresh pork," "smoked pork chops," "bacon," "breakfast sausage," "smoked sausage" and "luncheon meats." [Photo credit: Smithfield.]

But if you put "swine flu" into the Smithfield search field the answer comes back, "Sorry, no recipes matching your search were found. Please try again..."

Smithfield's Hog Lots (CAFOs), Philpott and Grist. In short, Smithfield ain't talking about its Granjas Carroll de Mexico operations.

Tom Philpott is.

Put "swine flu" and "Smithfield" into Google and most of the hits lead back to his entry, Tom Philpott, "Swine Flu Outbreak Linked to Smithfield Factory Farms,", April 25, 2009.

Philpott is the Grist food editor and farms what he describes as "a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina." Here is a reproduction of his swine flu article:
The outbreak of a new flu strain—a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses—has infected 1000 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 Carrol, raise 950,000 hogs per year, according to the company Web site—a level nearly equal to Smithfield’s total U.S. hog production.

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):
[Photo credit:] 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 [Smithfield's] 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 orginal 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.

Can We Eat Ham? (1) (a) To remove any possible ambiguity, and in fairness to Smithfield, it should be noted that at least I am unaware of any evidence that one can contract swine flu by eating pork products, whether Smithfield's or those of any other supplier. Apparently, once contracted swine flu is then spread from human to human (some of whom may be referred to as "pigs" but are actually of the human species). If Philpott is correct, Smithfield's possible involvement comes from what it's doing in its hog lots, not in its products.

(b) On the other hand, one of the world's largest importers of pork products, Russia, has curtailed its importation of pork based on its scientific and epidemiological evaluations. ("Russia banned imports of all meat not treated thermally from Mexico, Texas, California and Kansas, and raw pork imports from eight other U.S. states, Central America and the Caribbean." Jonathan Lynn, "Swine flu alert prompts pork import bans," Reuters, April 27, 2009. "[I]n 2008 Russia was this nation's [the United States'] fourth-largest international customer for pork and pork variety meats, with 217,767 metric tons worth $476 million. For January and February 2009, exports to Russia were down 49% from year ago . . .." Lauren Etter, Debbie Carlson and Curt Thacker, "Pork Industry Moves to Quell Flu Fears," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2009.)

Hog Lots and Swine Flu: The Data (2) (a) Russia's scientists notwithstanding, I have not personally searched the scientific literature on the relationships between hog lots and swine flu and for that reason know of none -- but see blockbuster Extra!, below. (b) Dr. Patricia Qunlisk, epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health, reports no known cases of swine flu in Iowa. Daniel P. Finney, "Epidemiologist: No swine flu reported in Iowa," Des Moines Register, April 26, 2009. Of course, there could be any number of explanations: [1] there never has been and never will be any connection between hog lots and human disease, [2] there can be a connection, but Iowa has just been lucky so far, [3] there can be a connection, and some Iowans are suffering from hog-related illness, but they have not yet been evaluated and diagnosed as such, [4] there can be a connection, but the risks can be radically reduced, or even eliminated, by following the practices of Iowa farmers, or (and deliberately listed last as least plausible) [5] there is a connection, Iowans have contracted disease, but the state's pork producers have sufficient political and economic power to suppress the news -- and, again, see blockbuster Extra! below.

Where Are the Media and Experts? (c) On the other hand, acknowledging that "an assertion is not a fact," and "an hypothesis is not a proof," if is correct, Mexican authorities seem to believe there is a connection between hot lots and swine flu, and the hypotheses they assert strike me as at a minimum perfectly plausible. Doesn't their hypothesis -- after all, they're there, at ground zero, dealing with over 1000 infected Mexicans -- at least deserve reporting by America's mainstream media, and investigation by our public health institutions? See, e.g., a story in which this might have been discussed where this hypothesis (indeed, any hypothesis as to source/cause) is nowhere to be found in an otherwise very reputable mainstream media report, Gautam Naik and Betsy McKay, "Science Races to Parse New Virus; Bug, a Genetic Hybrid, Contains Elements Foreign to Humans, Posing Pandemic Risk," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2009.

Will Iowans Take Note -- Let Alone Take Charge?

In case you missed it, fellow Iowans, let me repeat what Philpott has to say about Iowa's hog lots:
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.
So far there's no reason to believe there's anything magical about Mexico's ability to create swine flu from hog lots. Have we just been lucky so far? Do we have the potential for creating our own homegrown swine flu? Have we already done so? Or is our immunity just one more way in which Iowa, and Iowans, are special? And see, "Cautions," (2)(b), above.

Blockbuster Extra! They've Known All Along! April 27, 4:45 p.m.
Well, it now turns out, I find, that scientists have known all about this risk since at least 2005. It's just that the CAFO-profiting corporations, and their campaign-contribution-profiting politicians have preferred to do nothing about it.

Here are excerpts from the AP's story 3-1/2 years ago involving, as it happens, a University of Iowa researcher.
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- University of Iowa scientists say . . . despite the worldwide focus on the avian flu virus, research by Dr. Gregory Gray shows pigs, too, pose a threat for passing the [influenza] virus to humans.

In . . . the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, Gray said hogs' genetic makeup make them perfect mixing vessels for producing new strains of influenza virus. . . .

If the avian flu virus or another pandemic strain enters the United States and infects swine or poultry flocks, Iowa's more than 200,000 swine and poultry workers could be at the front lines of infection, researchers said. "We're really concerned about agricultural workers and their health," said Gray . . ..

Between 2002 and 2004, researchers studied 111 Iowa farmers, 97 meat-processing workers, 65 veterinarians and 79 individuals uninvolved in the swine industry.

The survey found that farmers were the most likely to have antibodies in their bloodstream to fight off swine influenza, which researchers say indicates previous infection with the virus . . . while processors showed lower rates . . ..

"Right now, swine workers are not included in the national pandemic plan, nor are they closely monitored for influenza," Gray said. "Should pandemic influenza virus strains enter the United States and these workers not be given special attention, we think it could be a really big problem for Iowa."
"Researchers urge monitoring farmers for avian flu exposure," AgriNews, November 26, 2005.

So what was a guess on my part yesterday -- that we might have some swine flu factories right here in Iowa -- now turns out to be very close to the truth.

Anyone Care for Some Chinese Ham? From Those Wonderful Folks Who Brought You . . .
"the deaths of some 51 people . . . blamed on cough syrup tainted with Chinese-made diethylene glycol, commonly used in antifreeze. The same chemical has been found in toothpastes from China sold in the US and Canada. Earlier this year, more than 100 brands of cat and dog food were pulled from the shelves in the US after pets died from eating food contaminated with the chemical melamine, traced back to wheat gluten from China."
Laura Smith-Spark, "Chinese product scares prompt US fears," BBC News, July 10, 2007.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Smithfield is being eyed by China's largest pork producer, Cofco.
"Early last year, Smithfield began exporting pork to China through Cofco; and in July, Cofo bought 5 percent of Smithfield shares [and] announced plans to consolidate production along the U.S. model [boosting its production from 500,000] to 10-15 million hogs within five years -- 'raised in accordance with standards and practices prevailing in the United States,' Forbes reported. In other words, Cofco and Smithfield were plotting the rapid-fire CAFOization of Chinese pork production. . . . Such a deal would represent a bet by the Chinese government that U.S. regulators have no serious plans on cracking down on CAFOs for antibiotic abuse, water and air degradation, and deplorable labor practices. Let’s hope Cofco execs don’t know something we don’t."
Tom Philpott, "Chinese agribiz giant eyes Smithfield takeover,", April 24, 2009; Emily Fredrix, "Analyst: Smithfield could be ripe for sale; Analyst says Smithfield Foods could be ripe for sale, but $17 a share is too high," Associated Press/Yahoo! Finance, April 22, 2009.

Samples of Sunday Stories Later in the Day[April 26]

Lauren Etter, Debbie Carlson and Curt Thacker, "Pork Industry Moves to Quell Flu Fears," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2009, 6:34 p.m.

Betsy McKay, David Luhnow and Jacob Goldstein, "Swine Flu is Public Health Emergency, With New U.S. Cases,"
Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2009, 6:34 p.m.

Cam Simpson, "U.S. Declares Public Health Emergency Over Swine Flu Outbreak," Wall Street Journal, April 26, 2009, 7:34 p.m.

See generally the Wall Street Journal's collection of 11 stories at "Swine Flu Complete Coverage," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2009.

Conclusion: Media Owe Us Investigation. When some Wall Street folks proved a little too clever for their own good, fraudulently packaging and selling worthless mortgages in an effort to enhance their short-term bonuses, they ended up harming not only themselves and their company, but their entire industry, and then the entire global economy beyond.

If -- and that's a big "if" -- it turns out that Swiftfield's CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), designed to reduce costs and increase corporate profits, end up contributing to a swine flu pandemic, the consequences may be similar. Already, as the Wall Street Journal stories reveal, the impact has gone well beyond Smithfield to the entire pork industry, public health organizations from the World Health Organization to the Iowa Department of Public Health, the travel industry (travelers' fear of crowds and destinations' hotels and restaurants, airlines' additional screening; Mexico City is virtually closed down), and the global stock markets. See, Steve Goldstein, "Futures Sink on Swine-Flu Fears," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2009, 6:25 a.m. CT. As Goldstein reports, two hours before the New York markets even opened, "U.S. stock futures fell sharply Monday as the outbreak of deadly swine flu stoked fears that a possible recovery in the global economy could be derailed."

In short, Grist's assertions regarding Smithfield's CAFO operation in Mexico (Granjas Carroll de Mexico) is, potentially, a very, very big story (see above). Good mainstream media investigative reporting may confirm, or prove false, Mexican authorities' assertions. In either case, the world's people -- and, not incidentally, Smithfield -- deserve no less.

Update: Times' Brief Mention, April 28

By Tuesday the New York Times let a brief mention of Springfield into the sixth paragraph of a back-page story:
In Mexico, where the only related deaths have been reported, state health authorities looking for the initial source of the outbreak toured a million-pig hog farm in Perote, in Veracruz State. The plant is half-owned by Smithfield Foods, an American company and the world’s largest pork producer.

Mexico’s first known swine flu case, which was later confirmed, was from Perote, according to Health Minister José Ángel Córdova. The case involved a 5-year-old boy who recovered.
Donald G. McNeil, "W.H.O. Issues Higher Alert on Swine Flu, With Advice," New York Times, April 28, 2009.

And so did the Times of London:
The boy’s hometown, La Gloria, is also close to a pig farm that raises almost 1 million animals a year. The facility, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, is partly owned by Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based US company and the world’s largest producer and processor of pork products. Residents of La Gloria have long complained about the clouds of flies that are drawn the so-called “manure lagoons” created by such mega-farms, known in the agriculture business as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). It is now known that there was a widespread outbreak of a powerful respiratory disease in the La Gloria area earlier this month, with some of the town’s residents falling ill in February. Health workers soon intervened, sealing off the town and spraying chemicals to kill the flies that were reportedly swarming through people’s homes.
Chris Ayres, "Mexico outbreak traced to 'manure lagoons' at pig farm," Times [of London] Online, April 28, 2009.

Wednesday [April 29] Morning Thoughts (Morning surveys and updates include Betsy McKay, "U.S. Confirms First Swine-Flu Death; Germany, U.K., Austria Confirm New Flu Cases," Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2009 ("U.S. health officials said swine flu has killed a 23-month-old child in Texas, the first U.S. death in the current outbreak and the first reported outside Mexico"), the BBC's "U.S. Reports First Swine Flu Death; New cases of the deadly swine flu virus have been confirmed as far afield as New Zealand and Israel, as the UN warns it cannot be contained," BBC News, April 28, 2009), and of course the Wall Street Journal's complete collection at "Swine Flu Coverage" (36 stories and features).

Pigs' Public Relations. Notwithstanding the mainstream media's seeming reluctance to be seen as taking on the pork industry by trying to uncover the cause, the source, of what's come to be called "swine flu" -- a subject one would think to be an attractive target for "investigative journalism" -- the large pig factories have been waging an embarrassingly disingenuous public relations campaign.

Lipstick on Pigs = "North American Flu"?! The pork industry is putting pressure on governments and the media to change the name from "swine flu" to something less, well, pork-related, like "North American flu" (notwithstanding the cases in New Zealand, Israel, Spain and Britain). (Similarly, the airline industry is trying to convince us there's no reason for us to stay home -- curtailing their profits along with our travel. Daniel Michaels and Susan Carey, "Airlines Could Be Affected if Passengers Curb Travel," Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2009.)

Agricultural groups . . . are successfully prodding the federal government to refer to the virus [as] H1N1.

The Agriculture Department, which used the term "swine influenza" as recently as Monday, clung to the anonymous term "H1N1 flu" in a statement Tuesday touting the safeness of U.S. pork. [NJ: The Secretary of Agriculture is former pork state Governor Tom Vilsack.] . . .

Richard Besser, acting director of [CDC said] . . . "That's [calling it "swine flu"] not helpful to pork producers. . . ."

[S]cientists say . . . viruses tend to be named after the first species in which they are discovered, and H1N1 was discovered in pigs decades ago [and] clearly had a long history in hogs before it made the leap into the human population . . ..

"The vast amount of material in it is in pigs," said [University of Minnesota's] Michael T. Osterholm . . ..

[T]he National Pork Producers Council has pestered health officials to stop calling it swine flu. "The whole industry is talking to the USDA and the White House," an industry lobbyist said. The American Farm Bureau Federation . . . [is] suggesting "hybrid influenza" . . ..

Smithfield Foods Inc. . . . prefers . . . "North American influenza." Swine flu "just has the wrong name," said [Smithfield CEO] C. Larry Pope . . ..

[During] . . . an outbreak of swine flu in 1976 . . . an industry group unsuccessfully pleaded for the name . . . "New Jersey flu."
Scott Kilman and Lauren Etter, "Pork Lobby Bristles at Swine Flu Label," Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2009.

Sadly, Pigs in the Oval Office Swine flu is perhaps the top news story today around the world. The WHO has moved the threat level toward pandemic from a 3 to 4 to 5 (on a six-point scale). The U.S. has now witnessed its first death from swine flu.

Swine flu is the name that scientists have used, consistent with past scientific naming practices, for the H1N1 virus for over 30 years -- until yesterday. We've all known the power of another kind of "pork" in Washington. Now we see the even greater power of the pork industry in actually putting words in the mouth of the President of the United States -- or, perhaps more precisely, taking the word "swine" out of his mouth. (Lest you think this was not a switch, see as late as Sunday afternoon, April 26, "Press Briefing on Swine Influenza," White House Press Office, April 26, 2009, at which the disease is consistently and repeatedly referred to as "swine flu.")

Although he led this evening's [April 29] news conference, appropriately, with the swine flu news the word "swine" (or "pigs," "hogs," "pork," "Smithfield" or "ham")was never mentioned either by him or any member of the mainstream media. (ABC's Charles Gibson, in his one-minute of commentary following the news conference spoke only of "flu.")

Now that is lobbying power! And a sad fact for all of us to contemplate.

Tomorrow we'll see the extent to which the mainstream media will be willing to mention the President's, and their, omission of capitulation this evening.

Safe to eat? But why do it? Senator Chuck Grassley, from the nation's largest pork producing state, Iowa, ceremoniously announced that he had just eaten a pork chop -- similar to former President George W. Bush's post 9/11 suggestion that the most appropriate response would be for the American people to "go shopping." In short, everything's normal; nothing to worry about. Although we've heard nothing regarding Grassley's health since, we can assume he's probably OK, and that the pork industry and health officials are probably correct to say that if we heat pork to over 160 degrees long enough it's probably safe to eat.

Risk Assessment. But why take the risk right now? It's a classic case of risk assessment (or benefit assessment) when it comes to medical information. Apparently the likelihood you'll get swine flu from eating pork is somewhere between slim and none at all. On the other hand, if you were to contract the disease there is at least some risk of death at worst and flu symptoms at best. Is there a benefit that outweighs that risk, a need to eat pork rather than other protein sources right now? No. Therefore, it's not irrational to, at a minimum, hold off on the pork right now. In fact, Russia has stopped importing pork from the U.S. and Mexico, in part for that reason, see above.

(I apply the analogous, reverse analysis to medical benefit. My doctor tells me the vitamin C I take is just ending up in the Iowa River. On the other hand, there's a widespread belief it can help reduce risk of colds during Iowa winters. There is no known harm from vitamin C consumption (within prescribed limits), and it doesn't cost very much. Given that there's some remote possibility of benefit, and no known risk of harm, I take some.)

Springfield's disingenuous defenses. Springfield is, understandably, trying to get out from under the cloud of flies and culpability that is swarming around its corporate headquarters and one-million-pig CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) in Mexico. ("'We are very comfortable that our pork is safe,' Smithfield president and chief executive Larry Pope said in an interview." Lauren Etter, "Mexico Tests Smithfield Hogs; U.S. Meat Company Says Its Pork Is Safe," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2009.)

They are saying that no one ever got swine flu from eating Smithfield pork products, none of their Mexican workers have contracted the disease from their hogs, and none of the hogs have swine flu. I've already dealt with the first, and I frankly don't trust them with regard to the second and third.

Want a second opinion? Here's an excerpt from a column by "Dr. [Henry I.] Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, [who] is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He is a former flu researcher and was an official at the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration from 1977 to 1994."

Flu viruses can be directly transmitted (via droplets from sneezing or coughing) from pigs to people, and vice versa. These cross-species infections occur most commonly when people are in close proximity to large numbers of pigs, such as in barns, livestock exhibits at fairs, and slaughterhouses. And, of course, flu is transmissible from human to human, either directly or via contaminated surfaces.

Pigs are uniquely susceptible to infection with flu viruses of mammalian and avian origin. This is of concern for a couple of reasons. First, pigs can serve as intermediaries in the transmission of flu viruses from birds to people. And when avian viruses infect pigs, they adapt and become more efficient at infecting mammals -- which makes them more easily transmitted and dangerous to humans.

Second, pigs can serve as hosts in which two (or more) influenza viruses infecting an animal simultaneously can undergo "genetic reassortment," a process in which pieces of viral RNA (the virus's genetic material, similar to DNA) are shuffled and exchanged, creating a new organism. The influenza viruses responsible for the world-wide 1957 and 1968 flu pandemics -- which killed about 70,000 and 34,000, respectively, in the U.S. -- were such viruses, containing genes from both human and avian viruses.
Henry I. Miller, "Understanding Swine Flu; The trouble starts in poor countries where too many people live in proximity to pigs and poultry," Wall Street Journal, April 29, 2009.

But none of Smithfield's defenses is really relevant even if any were true.

The question is whether the Smithfield operation, that confines pigs in very closed quarters, creates "lagoons" of waste, attracts swarms of flies, and is the geographical location where the disease seems to have begun, has something to do with the origins of swine flu.

Mexican health officials believe its origin is related to the flies in the pig manure (see above).

The Iowa researcher found that Iowa hog farmers had built up antibodies to swine flu in their bodies. That's good news and bad news. Antibodies are good; they help ward off disease; their creation is what vaccines are for (including flu vaccines). But if the farmers haven't been inoculated with a swine flu vaccine it must mean that they were exposed to the disease in some other way -- most likely as a result of being around either their hogs or the hogs' manure or the manure's flies (see above).

Pigs' politics mean investigations unlikely. The large factory CAFOs and packing houses are notoriously (a) politically powerful and, perhaps for that reason, (b) loosely regulated. There are many reasons for using this opportunity to review their practices -- however unlikely it may be that the officials who represent agricultural states, receive the industry's campaign contributions, and control the relevant committees of Congress will stop eating pork chops long enough to conduct such investigations. Those reasons include everything from unbelievable animal cruelty to the adverse impact on human health from industry practices to -- for those who enjoy eating meat -- the quality of the product.

Vegetarian thoughts. And this is also a good time to at least think about, even if not adopt, the path of vegetarians -- a growing number. Meat is related to the obesity epidemic and two of our biggest killers: cancer and heart disease. ("Now a new study of more than 500,000 Americans has . . . found that . . . the men and women who consumed the most red and processed meat were likely to die sooner, especially from one of our two leading killers, heart disease and cancer . . .." Jane E. Brody, "Paying a Price for Loving Red Meat," New York Times, April 27, 2009.)

A respect for animals is grounded for some in religious or philosophical beliefs that discourage, if not prevent, their eating cattle and hogs as much as eating their pet cat. Their notion of living in harmony with nature involves granting a "right to life" to all species, not just humans. With a growing global population, and pressure on land and water, there's an environmental benefit from vegetable protein sources that require roughly one-tenth the land per gram of protein as the land required for animal protein.

Just some things to think about as we watch the growing numbers of those infected with, and dying from, swine flu.

April 30 Blockbuster: Why Healthy Hogs Harm Humans

Sounds impossible, doesn't it? It's not.

It turns out that the corporate pork industry's confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and its procedures, are incubating more than just swine flu. The problem for the human species is not just buried in the hog manure lagoons with the flies. It's also in the antibiotics force-fed to healthy pigs.

The New York Times Nicholas Kristol explains it all in a "must read" column of his from last month [March]. Here are some excerpts:

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication.

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics.

These dangerous pathogens are now even in our food supply. Five out of 90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA — an antibiotic-resistant staph infection — according to a peer-reviewed study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year. . . .

[These] results should sound an alarm bell, for MRSA already kills more than 18,000 Americans annually, more than AIDS does. . . .

[A] new strain [of MRSA] called ST398 is emerging and seems to find a reservoir in modern hog farms. Research by Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota suggests that 25 percent to 39 percent of American hogs carry MRSA. . . .

[P]igs could pass on the infection by direct contact with their handlers, through their wastes leaking into ground water (. . . antibiotic-resistant bacteria enter[] ground water from hog farms), or through their meat . . ..

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. . . . [T]he United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.

[A]ntibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. . . . [M]ore antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population. . . .

Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use [asks], “So why give them [antibiotics] to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

Legislation to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture has always been blocked by agribusiness interests. . . .

Louise Slaughter of New York, who is the sole microbiologist in the House of Representatives, said she planned to reintroduce the legislation this coming week.

“We’re losing the ability to treat humans,” [asserts Congress' sole microbiologist, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, NY]. “We have misused one of the best scientific products we’ve had.” . . .

The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared antibiotic resistance a “public health crisis” [citing the case of] a 17-year-old New Jersey girl who died from MRSA in 2006 [having] endured months in the hospital, . . . because the microbes were stronger than the drugs. . . .

So Mr. Obama and Mr. Vilsack, will you line up to curb the use of antibiotics in raising American livestock? That is evidence of an industrial farming system that is broken: for the sake of faster-growing hogs, we’re empowering microbes that endanger our food supply and threaten our lives.
Nicholas D. Kristof, "Pathogens in Our Pork," New York Times, March 14, 2009.


* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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Jim said...

thank you. thank you. leave it to you, Nick, to get the word out about important stuff nobody else will touch. CAFOS are going to leave Iowans sick (we better get serious health care reform) and our environment destroyed. when these large producers send all their production to china and mexico (which it looks like they are)and Iowa's economy is in the tank, does anyone believe that they will be around to help us clean up the mess? The question is who are the pigs here? The intelligent creatures crammed into horrific conditions or the CEOs?

Anonymous said...

Smithfield might become a Chinese owned outfit, according a report in Reuters this morning.

Link to Reuters story

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