Saturday, May 02, 2009

Factory Farming and Flu (Updated narrative)

April 27

I'm not a conspiracy nut but I'm also not stupid. When I came across this morning's story linking this new strain of flu to factory hog farming in Mexico the penny dropped. (I love the tag from Grist: "When pigs flu" )

Until now Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the giant factory farming operations where most animals are raised for meat in the US, have been mostly criticized for the cess pools they produce and for mistreatment of animals and workers. But following from there, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times recently there is a risk that MRSA, a virulent bacteria without any cure, is being incubated in hog operations in the midwest — a bug that is easily transmissible to humans via our genetic similarities to pigs. Now, a much bigger problem has presented itself — it seems a new virulent flu, which the World Health Organization is saying has “pandemic potential,” has been possibly linked to a CAFO in Perote, Mexico owned and operated by industrial pork operator Smithfield.

Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer. At the Perote, Mexico facility operated by Smithfield subsidary Granjas Carroll, 950,000 pigs were raised and sold for meat in 2008. According to the disease-tracking site Biosurveillance:

Lots more details at the link. Wait til after lunch before you go there.

Best summary in a nutshell is from Natasha Chart:

Shorter Smithfield, as paraphrased by Bart Simpson: We didn't do it, nobody saw us do it, you can't prove a thing.

Crawford Kilian at H5N1 blog
is on the case with his customary thoroughness.

I'm waiting for one of the radio republicans to link this outbreak with the criminal invasion of diseased illegal aliens meme. Nothing so far but I know it's as tempting as an after-dinner drink. We'll see.

Oops. I spoke too soon. It's not radio republicans, though. Someone else beat them to the mark.

Canada Free Press floats just such a piece.

Those who oppose border security and enforcement of America’s immigration laws bristle sharply whenever the term illegal, as in illegal aliens, is used to describe--well, illegal aliens.

Such people seek the psychological advantage of using the more politically correct “undocumented” when describing those whom have willfully violated our borders and are here unlawfully.

...those seeking to enter this nation legally, rather than by simply jumping a fence and heading north to the nearest welfare office, are subjected to a series of background checks to examine crime, health, financial, and social background. The objective is to protect American citizens from newcomers with a history of crime who might also become a financial or medical burden on society.

In other words, those aspiring to migrate to the U.S. legally are examined by medical professionals trained to detect maladies like the swine flu.

As it is, there are between 12 and 38 million illegal aliens residing in America, mostly from third-world nations.

Because all came here illegally, our government knows nothing about these people. Repeat NOTHING!

How many are carriers of TB or other diseases long ago eradicated here but still persistent in the third world? How many have criminal records, including violent crimes like rape and murder? How many are financially reckless and likely to become a burden on American taxpayers?

Most importantly today, how many are infected with swine flu?

The answers to these and other vital questions cannot be answered because a series of presidents and Congresses, from both political parties, have refused to enforce our immigration laws.

At this point, no one knows how devastating the Mexican swine flu will be.

One thing is a certainty, however: Politicians elected to uphold the laws of this nation had damn well better start doing just that, or this nation may not exist much longer!

I'm too slow for words. Malkin is all over this thing.
A quick search for "smithfield factory farms" found nothing among several pages of comments from her community.
Never mind details like factory farms as the perfect places to hatch new strains of flu. Or the inconvenient fact that those places are owned and operated by American companies.

Factory farming is a mess, whether the animals are hogs, poultry or cattle. The stories are too disgusting for me to follow because as a food service professional I have been at the supportive end of the mess my whole working life. Even now I really love hotdogs, deviled ham, ribeye steaks and a lot of other stuff I really don't need to be eating. But with the Obama-led move to environmental conservation, better health and such, this old Liberal may be in for some improvements in diet, exercise and supporting cleaner food production. Our generation picked the political low-hanging fruit. Our kids are now finding some lifestyle contradictions.

We've known for years that seasonal flu mutations originate in the wetlands of South Asia. That's where the vaccines come from. Each year as new flu strains arise our drug makers get samples and bring them back ASAP to cultivate year's flu shots. Every year is different. That's why last year's shot is not effective this year. The game is to vaccinate as many people as possible in advance of the natural progress of the virus via tourists and other vectors that spread it in the population.

Could swine flu be a wake-up call that factory farming has room for improvement?

Update, April 28

The evening news finally got around to mentioning the pig farm owned by Smithfield. I was starting to wonder if the story might be swept under the rug. Once again the Web is about two days ahead of the cycle. Just be advised, the Web is often wrong -- see the last item below.

Also, via techPresident, your one-stop flu information site is

One other note: Tom Watson points to an interactive online map purporting to be a tracking site for swine flu. It's being called a Google map but it was not put up by Google and due to having no authoritative oversight is waaay off.
Make a mental note: don't go there.

April 29

Crawford Killian comments about the pork industry's desire to change the name from swine flu to just about anything else. It is misleading ignorant people who imagine it is spread by earing pork, but I dobt a name change would oversome that problem.
Here's a cautionary note for pig farmers and people with pigs as pets:
Maybe we really do need to just keep describing it as H1N1, and to remind everyone that you don't get it from pigs; if anything, the pigs will now get it from you.**

Regarding how some voices will conflate a medical/environmental transnational problem with immigration, SPLC's Hatewatch is keeping track. Even though the spread of H1N1 is now worldwide after just four days, some people can't help themselves.

Speaking of raaaacist, the worst — and weirdest — of this week’s bigoted swine flu commentary comes courtesy of garrulous anti-immigration extremist Frosty Wooldridge. Writing for, he uses a few swift, bold strokes to link Mexicans carrying a flu virus to “Voodoo tribal people in Florida” hosing themselves down with chicken blood. Check it out:

“Such outbreaks of diseases stem from cultures that lack personal hygiene, personal health habits and standards for disease prevention. … Hmongs, tribal people from Laos and Cambodia, immigrated to Minnesota to build chicken wire in their dish cabinets in their kitchens to house hens laying eggs, and goats and pigs in their cellars. Voodoo tribal people in Florida behead chickens and goats to spray the blood over themselves for cleansing. I saw it once in a park in South Florida.”

Wooldridge continues: “In other words, as the USA imports another 70 million third world people into this country by 2035, they bring their customs, their cultures, their diseases. We cannot educate them or change their habits fast enough to maintain our own health standards.”

Later on Woolridge goes off about how Mexicans are bringing cases of leprosy into the U.S. in record numbers as well as swine flu....

**"if anything the pigs will now get it from you" This was written April 29. A week later it really happened when a pig farm in Alberta, Canada reported a group of pigs that got sick after contracting the virus from a worker who had come from Mexico!

April 30

Crawford Killian again.
What H5N1 couldn't do in 12 years, H1N1 has done in a week—push the WHO alert level to phase 4, and then to phase 5 just 24 hours later. The news aggregators used to go hours, even days, with a real bird flu story. Now they need updates every five minutes.

I sense that bloggers and health reporters are feeling overwhelmed, though far from burned out. It's wonderfully encouraging to see that the scientists like Revere and Tara Smith and Vincent Racaniello are leaping into action, and some bloggers have come back to the battle after weeks of silence.

He's my go-to guy for anything about flu or pandemics information.

Maggie Jochild at Group News Blog has the lowdown on Smithfield.
Smithfield is the largest pig farmer in the world and controls 26% of pork production in America. Without spoiling the book for you, it seems obvious to me that Grimes' model for the giant corporate offender she wrote about in Dakota includes the likes of Smithfield. This is borne out by the Rolling Stone article you've no doubt seen referenced at various progressive blogs the past week (including our own excellent Evan Robinson.) This article is well worth reading. It will help you understand, if you do not already, how cramming sentient beings for their lifetime into extremely filthy, unimaginably crowded quarters, forcing them into cannibalism and removing them from all natural exposure, makes them unable to survive except by injecting them continuously with antibiotics and other chemicals. The run-off from these farms tends to completely overwhelm the surrounding area. In such toxic offal, the emergence of a mutated superbug seems inevitable, almost as if that is what the corporate decision-makers had as an ultimate goal.

May 2

The flu spreads but appears to be stabilizing. As what is now offidially a pandemic plays out two items are worth noting. First, what will be the effect of a less dramatic outcome?
The irony is that the overreaction backlash will be more severe the more successful the public health measures are.

If, for example, the virus peters out this spring because transmission was interrupted long enough for environmental conditions (whatever they are) to tip the balance against viral spread, CDC and local health officials will be accused of over reacting. It's another example of the adage, "When public health works, nothing happens."

On the other hand, if local officials do nothing and things get worse, they will be accused of being slow.LINK

It's happened before. We can expect it to happen again. The same crowd that would be up in arms if a lethal strain of flu was spreading like wildfire and killing a large percentage of victims, blaming the government for not being prepared, will now save their criticisms for next year when they can complain instead about government and bureaucratic over-reaction.

And continuing the xenophobia subtext mentioned above
"People always want to find a culprit, and it's easy to target people who can't really defend themselves," said Carlos Garcia, a Hispanic activist in Phoenix.

In recent days, at least three U.S. congressmen called for travel across the Mexico border to be stopped or restricted to prevent the spread of the virus - a measure the government has said would be ineffective.

Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin blamed the spread of "contagious diseases" on "uncontrolled immigration" in a blog, and other conservative talk show hosts made similar claims.

In Boston, WTKK-FM radio suspended talk show host Jay Severin on Thursday. News reports said Severin slammed Mexican migrants on air in recent days, calling them "criminal aliens," "primitives," "leeches," and "exporters of women with mustaches and VD."

In response to the sharpened tone, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, or NAHJ, urged the media to be "fair and prudent" when covering the flu and resist scapegoating Mexican immigrants.

"Immigrants, of course, have long been favorite and convenient scapegoats for some for everything from high taxes to infectious diseases," it said in a statement issued on Wednesday. "Facts haven't much mattered."

The NAHJ noted U.S. citizens also cross the border. There are more than 4,000 weekly flights from the United States to Mexico, and about 80 percent of visitors to Mexico last year came from the United States.

May 3

As the flap dies down, I give Crawford Killian the last word with his wonderful headline, Pandemic: Come as you are, dumb as you are. Like most of us who have been reading the news, he is not as surprised as amazed that so many people in high places are still as ill-informed as they are.
Stress, we hack novelists know, is the key to revealing character. So it's discouraging to see how little stress it takes to reveal a serious lack of character, not to mention basic common sense, in our political masters.
The Iraqis, after six long years' experience with irrational and pointless violence, shoot the three wild boars in the Baghdad Zoo. Just to make sure. (Why didn't they shoot all their chickens back in 2006 when they actually had a couple of human H5N1 cases?)

The Egyptian government is slaughtering all the pigs, who belong to Coptic Christians, while the Copts and cops get into punch-ups about this policy.

China, home of a large fraction of the best minds on the planet, has banned Canadian pork imports.

Whether serious or trivial, the H1N1 outbreak has turned into an "outfreak"—an opportunity, eagerly seized, to be stupid on the personal, community, and national level.

Gorging on Memphis barbecue would be a great way to die, but it wouldn't be from swine flu. Every healthcare expert and politician knows this. Even vegetarians know this.

So why do governments suddenly ban pork they know is perfectly OK?

The charitable answer is that they want to boost their own domestic pork industries. In countries like China, that's understandable; I well recall a 1983 stroll through a village in suburban Guangzhou, where the pigs were housed close to their owners, and almost as well.

But as with their quarantine Mexican nationals on grounds of citizenship, the Chinese are ditching hygiene for politics.

When a pandemic hits, you deal with it using the resources you've got. Like an unexpected invasion, it's a "come as you are" event. The trick is to foresee the pandemic and to build up the personnel, equipment, and organization to stop it.

But if your response to the threat of pandemic is to be stupidly sanctimonious, all your planning will be in vain.


linda said...

Excellent commentary. Just want to add something re:the CAFO in La Gloria, where so many residents had complained of mysterious illness about a month before we ever heard of swine flu. I read an article that interviewed the manager of the place who claimed that their livestock was immunized and healthy. He stated that none of his pigs were sick or had been sick or will ever be sick because they take good care of them. He then stated that nobody from "government" had come out to inspect his plant in particular. The article was dated on April 27 or 28th. I can find it if you need a link, but I can't find updates.
There is also some research that points to CAFO's as contributing to the spread of MRSA virus, something that is probably brewing a pandemic all its own but has been kept hush, hush.

Hoots said...

I'm sure a lot of information is being covered up for a variety of reasons... most of which have to do with money or job security. Maybe one day the evidence will become so overwhelming that it will erupt.