What Airports and Factory Farms Have in Common: The Possible Smithfield/Swine Flu Connection

05/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last Monday, as I boarded a commercial flight, I sneezed. I had sneezed in the car on the way to the airport, and I would sneeze more throughout the day. On my way to the W.K Kellogg Foundation's Food & Society conference, a gathering of nearly 600 "good food" advocates, and excited about the trip, I chalked my sneezes up to allergies and several hours later, checked into a hotel in San Jose and commenced to mingle with about 600 of my cohorts. We were there to discuss solutions to the problems that ail our collective and industrialized food system, one that has had a troubling couple of years in the public health arena, having been linked to epidemics like obesity and diabetes, and outbreaks of infectious diseases like E. coli and salmonella.

Wednesday afternoon, near the end of the conference, I started feeling feverish and headachy and my "allergies" theory began to wear thin. I took some aspirin and though I hated to, I ducked out of the after-dinner socializing hours earlier than I normally would have. The next morning I woke with a ragingly stuffy head and there was no denying that I was sick. As one who cringes at others who even sniffle on planes, I started feeling guilty about the afternoon's flights home, in the recycled air, next to some unsuspecting stranger.

Saturday, as the news broke about the swine flu, the Facebook pages of friends I saw at the conference started mentioning that they were sick, too. As I pushed back nagging questions about whether or not the incubation period of this flu meant it could be much more widespread than suspected, perhaps enough to have infected us, it became clear that whatever we did all have was contagious.

As public health authorities around the world began to sound the alarm about the swine flu I was busy convincing myself I didn't have, so too did the crowd I'd been rubbing shoulders with in California, issuing forth a flurry of emails with links to evidence that pointed to industrial pork production practices as the likely cause of the outbreak. Tom Philpott of Grist cites the Mexican newspaper La Marcha, which in an April 15th article names a likely suspect in the hog farms run by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of Smithfield, the largest pork processor in the world and the subject of the 2006 Rolling Stone article Boss Hog (which points to Smithfield, among other things, as one of the worst polluters on the globe.)

Here's the connection: if a commercial flight is a prime breeding ground for airborne infectious disease, consider the digs of modern hogs. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, bring together tens of thousands of animals in quarters that make a sold-out 747 look spacious. Keeping a cap on disease in such conditions has risen to a sort of macabre art form involving the use of antibiotics (including the "non-therapeutic" use, which means that they feed the animals antibiotics as a preventative measure) to ward off the infectious diseases you might expect to thrive in such a place. This practice has been linked to the spread of drug-resistant MRSA bacteria, but is not likely the cause of the influenza outbreak. Manure lagoons, the gigantic receptors for the millions of gallons of excrement expelled by the thousands of animals, may be the more likely culprit. To quote Tom Philpott's "rough translation" of the La Marcha article published back on April 15:

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.

The Guardian, which is now reporting that 60 per cent of La Gloria's population have fallen ill, backs up the CAFO connection thusly:

In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

Smithfield released a statement Sunday denying the evidence of swine flu in its Mexican operations.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the pandemic threat level from 3 to 4 on a scale of 6, and today they say it "can no longer be contained," with confirmed cases throughout Asia, in Israel and New Zealand. Authorities around the globe seem to share my airport worries, as surgical masks sell out and travelers are screened and quarantined. In the meantime, many governments have placed emergency bans on North American pork products, Smithfield's stock has taken a dive, and the American mainstream media are blowing up with breaking information but so far, few have reported on the Smithfield connection except to repeat the company's denial of responsibility or the drop in stock prices (CNN Money and The New York Times have touched on but not delved into the subject).

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was quick to point out early on that consumers are still safe to eat pork, but the statement begs the questions, who wants to eat meat from animals who are jammed in together the majority of their lives, their excrement at best degrading waterways and polluting the air and at worst, the cause of a global influenza pandemic?

Eddie Gehman Kohan is reminding readers at Obama Foodorama that "[l]ocal and regional food sourcing is also a better model in terms of general food safety (we currently are capable of inspecting less than one percent of our own imported foods)," and although in the face of this public health crisis, eating local might seem a laughable solution, it seems abundantly clear that industrial agriculture practices leave animals, workers, the general public and the environment at risk in ways that localized systems may not, and that the mainstream media (and while we're at it, international lawmakers) should be taking a long hard look at the laws that allow for such practices and the companies that profit on account of them.

As for me, my cough is hanging on but my fever broke days ago and I doubt it was the swine flu. I hope it wasn't because if it was, we're a lot worse off than authorities expect, and the fact that I spent time in four different airports last week means that I likely infected many more people, in spite of my best efforts to wash my hands, cover my mouth and nose while sneezing and coughing.

Imagine how many pigs I could have infected if I'd spent last week in a CAFO.

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Originally posted on The Green Fork.