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Beyond Swine Flu - Could Factory Farms Be the Cause of the Next Man-Made Pandemic?

07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As the hysteria surrounding the swine flu begins to subside, so do the unanswered questions about the origin of the disease. While a 24-hour news cycle incessantly tallies each and every victim, few networks have reported on the possible source of the outbreak.

In a scenario we see all too often whenever new viruses emerge, nearly every aspect of this outbreak is overly sensationalized. The same thing happened when several isolated cases of avian flu, Monkeypox, West Nile and SARS made daily headlines.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not minimizing the loss of life and agree it is important to monitor disease outbreaks regardless of size. But shouldn't these repetitive reports be kept in perspective, particularly in a country where good hygiene and medical care is available?

Ever since the swine flu scare became a "breaking news" story there has been very little coverage on the suspicion that its origin may be the byproduct of unregulated corporate greed, otherwise known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms.

For the most part, the mainstream media have been "missing in action" (again) on the swine flu/Smithfield connection. A few networks and newspapers have given the possible connection a brief mention, but for the most part, internet reporters are the ones putting together the pieces.

It was Tom Philpott, food editor for Grist, who first broke the story that the origin of the swine flu outbreak may be connected to a concentrated animal feeding operation owned by a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

In his article, Philpott starts a timeline and notes an April 6th quote from a government disease tracking website, Biosurveillance. The quote came from scientist Dr. James Wilson who wrote:

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 farm. (April 6)

Following up on Philpott's story, investigative journalist David Kirby added fuel to the Smithfield fire, in back-to-back Huffington Post articles:

On Sunday, the state government of Veracruz confirmed swine influenza in a five-year-old girl in the village of La Gloria, located near a massive US-owned hog facility...And in the western state of Guerroro, 500 pigs were just killed after becoming ill with swine flu. (April 27)

Mexican health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova announced Monday evening that officials have identified who they believe to be the earliest known case of the swine flu outbreak: A four-year-old boy in the village of LaGloria, Veracruz, near the huge Granjas Carroll hog operation, which is co-owned by Smithfield Foods of Virginia. (April 28)


In one of the most nauseatingly graphic depictions, Rolling Stone's Jeff Tietz, brilliantly describes the conditions and consequences of what has become the inhumane agribusiness of animal food production.

Through his investigation of Smithfield Foods, Tietz exposes the "dirty secret of the nations top hog producer" and explains how the confinement of hundreds of thousands of animals in over-crowded, unsanitary conditions, also produces millions of tons of animal waste that damages the ecosystems in nearby communities and poses a real and ongoing threat to human health:

The 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. The best estimates put Smithfield's total waste discharge at 26 million tons a year. That would fill four Yankee Stadiums.

So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems."

Smithfield's holding ponds -- the company calls them lagoons -- cover as much as 120,000 square feet. The area around a single slaughterhouse can contain hundreds of lagoons, some of which run thirty feet deep. The liquid in them is not brown. The interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs turn the lagoons pink.

These grotesque swampy lagoons pollute the soil and release noxious fumes into the air causing adverse health effects in farm workers and residents of nearby communities. It should not be surprising that factory farms, like Smithfield's, provide a perfect incubator-like environment for new and virulent viruses.

In addition to the filthy conditions, animals are routinely fed artificial hormones to promote faster, unnatural growth and antibiotics to stave off diseases prior to slaughter.

The immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs' immune systems. They become susceptible to infection, and in such dense quarters microbes or parasites or fungi, once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population. Accordingly, factory pigs are infused with a huge range of antibiotics and vaccines, and are doused with insecticides. Without these compounds -- oxytetracycline, draxxin, ceftiofur, tiamulin -- diseases would likely kill them. Thus factory-farm pigs remain in a state of dying until they're slaughtered. When a pig nearly ready to be slaughtered grows ill, workers sometimes shoot it up with as many drugs as necessary to get it to the slaughterhouse under its own power. As long as the pig remains ambulatory, it can be legally killed and sold as meat.

Many health officials now suspect the overuse of antibiotics as feed additives may be producing antibiotic-resistant viruses and infections including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

Although MRSA does not receive a great deal of attention and is primarily associated with hospital-acquired staph infections, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) researchers have reported that MRSA is responsible for more deaths in the US each year than HIV/AIDS:

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was responsible for an estimated 94,000 life-threatening infections and 18,650 deaths in 2005, CDC researchers report in the Oct. 17 [2007] issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

And if all of this were not bad enough... we, the public, with our insatiable demand for inexpensive meat and poultry, are paying for the propagation of these industrial farms through taxpayer supported government subsidies.

For years, the CDC has been making dire predictions about the next deadly flu pandemic.

Similarly, concerns about the possible health affects caused by CAFOs have been around for years as well:

Scientists, medical personnel and public health officials have been sounding the alarm on these issues for some time. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization(FAO) have recommended restrictions on agricultural uses of antibiotics; the American Public Health Association(APHA) proposed a moratorium on CAFOs back in 2003. All told, more than 350 professional organizations -- including the APHA, American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics-- have called for greater regulation of antibiotic use in livestock. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared antibiotic-resistant infections an epidemic in the United States. The FAO recently warned that global industrial meat production poses a serious threat to human health. (The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms and Human Illness, Mother Earth News Feb/March 2009)

Predictably, any association between CAFOs and diseases, like the swine flu, now called H1N1 for obvious reasons, are summarily discounted and vehemently denied by Smithfield executives.

As is all too often the case, when it comes to government action, or the lack of it, protecting human health always takes a back seat to big business. Powerful lobbyists looking after their client's interests are one reason why you are unlikely to hear too much on the Smithfield connection from flu fretting government and public health officials.

Rather than rein in factory farm operations and force them to clean up the polluted cesspools, the government's response to this current public health crisis is a predictable one...to once again dispense billions of taxpayer dollars for the development and production of yet another vaccine...a very sweet deal for vaccine manufacturer, which will likely include liability protection for a faulty vaccine.

For those that don't remember, it was the death of one Fort Dix soldier, Pvt. David Lewis, and the hospitalization of four other soldiers who contracted swine flu in 1976 that set off a national panic and what was described by many as a public health "fiasco."

The government, along with a gentle nudge from the drug companies, thought the answer to the swine flu was to quickly develop a vaccine and then vaccinate 220 million Americans. Unfortunately, the vaccine ended up permanently injuring and killing hundreds more than the swine flu.

Although officials won't admit it, vaccine manufacturers are often cited for "good manufacturing practice violations" in warning letters known as Pink Sheets. Because of this, I have real concerns when I hear that a vaccine is the government's best medicine to combat any disease, and there is a possibility the government intends to mandate such a vaccine.

Just last March, Baxter International Inc., was caught exporting the live avian flu virus in vaccines sent to medical facilities in 18 countries:

Baxter International Inc. in Austria 'unintentionally contaminated samples with the bird flu virus that were used in laboratories in 3 neighbouring countries, raising concern about the potential spread of the deadly disease'. Austria, Germany, Slowenia and the Czech Republic - these are the countries in which labs were hit with dangerous viruses. Not by bioterrorist commandos, but by Baxter. In other words: One of the major global pharmaceutical players seems to have lost control over a virus which is considered by many virologists to be one of the components leading some day to a new pandemic.


With no one asking any questions about Baxter's little "mistake," especially not the mainstream media, the company is now working hard with the World Health Organization on a swine flu vaccine.

Simply developing a new vaccine doesn't address the real threat, and could, as we saw in 1976, actually do more harm than good.

Viruses are always mutating which means the millions of vaccines created today may not work tomorrow. We hear this almost every year with the influenza vaccine. Often the vaccine developed dose not match the influenza strain and the miss-match renders the vaccine ineffective, if it was ever effective, or safe, to begin with.

This government has a bad habit of failing to react until disaster strikes and then opting for the "quick fix".

As the government and health officials review the country's ability to respond to the next pandemic flu, it would be irresponsible for them not to investigate these toxic disease breeding grounds and whether the public is being put at risk because of the proliferation of powerful pollution profiteers like Smithfield.

And while they are at it, they might also want to consider whether the best preventative medicine might not lie within a vaccine syringe but rather with tighter regulations on industrial factory farms.

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