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Doth Smithfield Protest Too Much? Swine Flu Brings Focus to Factory Farm Practices

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As I wrote earlier this week, the virus formerly known as the swine flu (although the CDC continues to say that indeed the H1N1 strain does, as initially reported, contain swine, human and avian virus components) seems quite likely to have links to an industrial hog operation in the La Gloria community where the outbreak was believed to have started, although new information suggests that this strain of the flu may actually have origins in the US as well as Asia. As could be expected, Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor and co-owner of the La Gloria facility in question, came out early last weekend denying culpability in the outbreak.

With test results at the La Gloria facility painfully slow to emerge, I want to point out here that I'm not saying definitively that this flu is the result of Smithfield's practices, but I do tend to follow the reasoning of Tom Philpott of Grist, writing on the 28th:

The question now becomes: Did the outbreak that started in February and killed three kids involve swine flu-or was the 4-year-old boy's infection an isolated case? If not-if the La Gloria epidemic turns out to be ground zero of the infection-could the swine-flu outbreak have originated literally in the shadows of Granjas Carroll's hog confinements, and not have some tie to intensive hog farming? That's a question that health authorities have to vigorously pursue.

Today, Smithfield CEO Larry Pope sat down for an interview on CNBC to counter the rumors. From the interview:

POPE: Oh. You-- in fact, our-- our team that went down even this week,
they have not been allowed on the farm yet. Because they haven't-- they
haven't satisfied the quarantine period. So our own executives can't go
on the farm until they've satisfied a quarantine. But I tell people
when you visit our farms, I'm not concerned about you. I'm concerned
about the pigs. I'm concerned about you contaminating the pigs. Not
the pigs contaminating you.

BURNETT: And this is because pigs and humans, in terms of DN-- there--
there's a lot of similarities.

POPE: There are.

BURNETT: That's the bottom line. So that's why diseases can go back and
forth.

POPE: People-- people can give it to them. They can give-- they can
give some to people on-- on occasion. But this doesn't appear to be
that case at all. It doesn't appear to be there at all. And again, it
doesn't transmit through the meat.

That nobody has been sickened by eating the meat is not at issue, though one could imagine why such a question would be of great importance to the head of the largest pork production company in the world. It is interesting to note that nobody has said specifically that a person could not be infected by handling raw pork from an animal that was infected. I think it's also worth noting here what Pope doesn't come right out and say -- that conditions at their facilities create such a tenuous situation for the health of these animals that they have to take these precautions (which may be preventing some of those quite-slow test results) when humans visit these facilities.

Whether or not scientists pin this strain of influenza on Smithfield, the fact that factory farms are a breeding ground for infectious diseases is well documented. Hans-Gerhard Wagner, a senior officer with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, has called the "intensive industrial farming of livestock" an "opportunity for emerging disease."

Not only that, but the ecological implications of industrial agriculture are worth mentioning here as well. Interestingly enough, Jeff Tietz's 2006 Rolling Stone article, Boss Hog, is still among the best I've seen on the subject.

In it, Tietz points out that a single Smithfield plant in Utah, housing a half million animals, generates more fecal waste per year than the 1.5 million people in Manhattan. He goes on to point out that companies like Smithfield are not required to treat said waste in the manner that local governments are required to treat human waste and that:

The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig sh*t: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency.

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.

Even light rains can cause lagoons to overflow; major floods have transformed entire counties into pig-sh*t bayous. To alleviate swelling lagoons, workers sometimes pump the sh*t out of them and spray the waste on surrounding fields, which results in what the industry daintily refers to as "overapplication." This can turn hundreds of acres -- thousands of football fields -- into shallow mud puddles of pig sh*t. Tree branches drip with pig sh*t.

Some pig-farm lagoons have polyethylene liners, which can be punctured by rocks in the ground, allowing sh*t to seep beneath the liners and spread and ferment. Gases from the fermentation can inflate the liner like a hot-air balloon and rise in an expanding, accelerating bubble, forcing thousands of tons of feces out of the lagoon in all directions.

All of this excrement has implications outside of the arena of public health. Tietz goes on to quote the then-chairman of Smithfield, one Joseph Luter III, as saying that the company had been charged by the Environmental Protection Agency with "a very, very small percent" (seventy-four at the time, compared to 2.5 million) of what he viewed as potential charges.

In 1997, the EPA hit Smithfield with the largest Clean Water Act fine to date ($12.6 million) for dumping "illegal levels of pollutants from their slaughterhouse into the Pagan River."

Also from Tietz, on the impact of all that waste in waterways:

Hog farms in North Carolina also emit some 300 tons of nitrogen into the air every day as ammonia gas, much of which falls back to earth and deprives lakes and streams of oxygen, stimulating algal blooms and killing fish.

And on the company's pollution track record:

Smithfield is not just a virtuosic polluter; it is also a theatrical one. Its lagoons are historically prone to failure. In North Carolina alone they have spilled, in a span of four years, 2 million gallons of shit into the Cape Fear River, 1.5 million gallons into its Persimmon Branch, one million gallons into the Trent River and 200,000 gallons into Turkey Creek. In Virginia, Smithfield was fined $12.6 million in 1997 for 6,900 violations of the Clean Water Act -- the third-largest civil penalty ever levied under the act by the EPA. It amounted to .035 percent of Smithfield's annual sales.

Whether or not Smithfield is "at fault" for H1N1, what is clear is that their facilities have been impacting public and environmental health for years. Here's hoping that the powers that be, once they've managed to containe this virus, will turn their attention to that.

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