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Reuters Mangles Flu Story and Blasts "Wild Theories" About "Evil Factory Farms"

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Reuters agency, one of the most reliably business-friendly news outlets, today blasted "wild theories" about "evil factory farms in Mexico" being the cause of the current outbreak of "deadly swine flu."

"Dead pigs in China, evil factory farms in Mexico and an al Qaeda plot involving Mexican drug cartels are a few wild theories seeking to explain (it)," says Reuter's Michael Kahn in London. "Nobody knows for sure, but scientists say the origins are in fact far less sinister and are likely explained by the ability of viruses to mutate and jump from species to species as animals and people increasingly live closer to each other."

That's right - in the lead paragraph, he derides the "wild theory" about factory-farms; and in the next he says the virus jumped from species to species to people, who live ever closer together.

La Gloria, Veracruz, thought to be the epicenter of the pandemic, is close to a massive hog complex that generates the same amount of raw sewage as a small city every day.

It wasn't the only oddity - or error - in the article, which also admonished readers to remember that, "Sound science is no match for the Internet and unsubstantiated media reports when it comes to providing a forum for ideas that have forced responses from governments and companies alike."

In Mexico, according to Reuters, "reports in at least two newspapers focused on a factory farm run by a subsidiary of global food giant Smithfield Foods," forcing Smithfield to go on the defensive. "Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico," a company statement said.

But then came the last, rather confounding sentence. The factory-farm connection was a "wild theory" propelled though the vexingly "unsubstantiated" Internet and drowning out "sound science." But, Kahn concluded at the end of his piece, "Viruses spread much more easily on factory farms where animals are packed together than in the wild, but so far there is no evidence that any one particular farm is the source."

It's just a wild theory lacking in "sound" science.

But Kahn seemed to be lacking some sound science himself. "Some of the rumors mentioned noxious fumes from pig manure and flies," he wrote, "neither a known vector for flu viruses."

That's not quite true.

Last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Practices issued a landmark report that described air emissions - or "noxious fumes"- measured outside large concentrated animal feeding operations, (CAFOs), or factory farms. In addition to toxic gases such as ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide and others, scientists also measured high levels of particulate matter and bioaerosols blowing out from the giant vents at the end of each massive animal confinement.

"Particulate matter associated with CAFOs is composed of fecal matter, feed materials, skin cells, microorganisms, and the products of microbial action on feces and feed," the report said.

And it added this: "Bioaerosols, or airborne particles of biological origin, are a major component of the particulate matter from livestock facilities. These include bacteria, fungi, mold and bacterial spores, viruses, mammalian cell debris, products of microorganisms, pollens, and aeroallergens."

If you are feeling sick just by reading that, imagine what it must be like to breathe it - every day. But yes, it is entirely possible for noxious fumes emitted from pig CAFOs to contain viruses, including influenza viruses.

Residents of La Gloria have complained about air quality problems for years. But they also complained intensively about the black clouds of flies that swarm in from the CAFOs' waste lagoons and invade their homes - which government officials fumigated even as they insisted there was no connection to the illness that sickened half the town of 3,000 people.

Reuters says that flies do not carry flu virus. Again, Reuters is wrong.

Several species of flies, and in particular Musca domestica, the common housefly, can carry and transmit not only Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) virus, but also the highly infectious and dangerous avian influenza strain, H5N1, according to UK scientist Terry Mabbett, who published his finding in the journal Poultry International.

"That the avian influenza virus can be spread by winged insects as well as wild birds underlines the need for efficient fly control on poultry farms along with other strict biosecurity measures," he said. And what goes for chickens, in this case, almost certainly goes for pigs as well.

Another study in 1985, found that one-third of all houseflies collected during a serious avian flu outbreak in Lancaster County Pennsylvania contained bird flu virus particles. And blow flies near a Japanese poultry farm a 2004 outbreak of H5N1 carried the whole virus. (And recent studies show that flies also carry antibiotic resistant bacteria from CAFO's to surrounding areas).

And of course, Reuters ignored another entirely plausible explanation for how the virus might have escaped the "evil" factory farms - asymptomatic workers who track it home and shed live virus around others.

More than 75% of all emerging pathogens that infect humans originate from animals, the Pew Report said. No wonder the commissioners called for "better assessment and surveillance of zoonotic pathogens in the CAFO environment."

Finally, when disputing other conspiracy theories about terrorists and drug lords being the viral source, Kahn turned to Michael Le Page, biology editor of the New Scientist magazine. Oddly, however, he seemed to have missed the rest of the article.

"In the wild nasty flu strains that make animals too ill to walk or fly are unlikely to spread far," Le Page had written. "On crowded factory farms, they can spread like wildfire, helped by the global trade in animals and animal products.

And Le Page finished his piece by saying: "By far the most plausible explanation is that this monster is the long-predicted product of our farming system."

In yet another New Scientist article, Deborah MacKenzie wrote that, "We could have seen this coming."

"This type of virus emerged in the US in 1998 and has since become endemic on hog farms across North America. Equipped with a suite of pig, bird and human genes, it was also evolving rapidly," she wrote.

According to Richard Webby of St Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, swine H1N1 virus merged with human and bird viruses in 1998 and by the next year they were the most common - and rapidly evolving - flu strain in North American pigs.

"There are many versions with different pig or human surface proteins, including one, like the Mexican flu spreading now, with H1 and N1 from the original swine virus," MacKenzie said.

Mass vaccination of pigs might be causing some strains of swine flu to rapidly mutate into new and more infectious forms. One in five US pig producers now makes its own vaccines.

According to Amy Vincent of the USDA, this quick turnover of viral mutations creates the "potential for pandemic influenza emergence in North America."

One reason is that one in five swine workers have antibodies to swine flu, showing they were infected at some point. So if it wasn't the flies or the fumes, there were still other vectors for getting that virus from pigs to people.

It is entirely possible that the Smithfield facility at La Gloria had nothing to do with this outbreak. But it is not exactly a "wild theory" - Smithfield pigs are being tested for the new H1N1 strain as I write this.

The author is currently completing a book about factory farming for St. Martins Press