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Unchecked Swine Flu, (Sick?) CAFO Workers and Lax Regulation, Oh My

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The United States Department of Agriculture agreed last week to buy an additional $30 million dollars worth of pork from the ailing pork industry, for a total of $151 million dollars purchased this year, as recompense for supposed damage wrought by the emergence of the swine flu in our common public lexicon (and the result will no doubt keep kids in public schools flush with factory-farmed sausage pizza this year).

The industry has been pushing the American media and our politicians to refer to the virus instead as "novel H1N1," which is indeed a scientific way to reference the flu. But "swine flu" has stuck because this is a virus that has passed between humans and pigs. It is uncertain still how the virus evolved and from where exactly, but as we are producing a glut of pork in the US it is not far off to consider that keeping thousands of pigs in close confinement in order to create cheap meat could be exacerbating the potential for disease.

When the news broke about the flu, many in the media focused on the personal aspect of avoiding getting ill, followed the illness as it took victims, or otherwise detailed the ways flus have played out historically. A few bloggers on sustainable food issues, like Tom Philpott at Grist, questioned the proximity of the virus outbreak in Perote, Mexico, 5 miles from a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) producing meat for pork giant Smithfield in the state of Vera Cruz.

But now, as the World Health Organization expects a second wave of the flu to hit the northern hemisphere in the fall, it is worth considering some of the looming questions on how CAFOs could be contributing to the occurrence of disease.

Environmental Health Perspectives' (EHP) cover story this month by Charles W. Schmidt focuses on the issue in detail, reigniting questions surrounding our country's current standard animal industry practices:

...one potential source of the original outbreak -- swine farming in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) -- has received comparatively little attention by public health officials. CAFOs house animals by the thousands in crowded indoor facilities. But the same economy-of-scale efficiencies that allow CAFOs to produce affordable meat for so many consumers also facilitate the mutation of viral pathogens into novel strains that can be passed on to farm workers and veterinarians, according to Gregory Gray, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.

"When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains," Gray explains. "The best surrogates we can find in the human population are prisons, military bases, ships, or schools. But respiratory viruses can run quickly through these [human] populations and then burn out, whereas in CAFOs--which often have continual introductions of [unexposed] animals--there's a much greater potential for the viruses to spread and become endemic."

So how would we in the US know if there were sick pigs at a 2,000 sow facility? The EHP article also follows up on the $1.5 million dollar USDA surveillance program assigned to look for novel flu strains in pigs, which is relying on voluntary samples. From that article:

[distinguished professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Jürgen A. Richt] asserts that without more industry cooperation, the USDA's surveillance program is "dead in the water." In other words, he explains, producers won't submit their animals for analysis without a guarantee of indemnification, meaning economic protection to recover losses should the virus be discovered.

In addition, Schmidt writes,

CAFOs fall through regulatory cracks when it comes to sampling for novel viruses that could make people sick. [Associate director for epidemiologic science in the Influenza Division of the CDC Carolyn Bridges] explains that producers have little incentive to test for swine influenzas, in part because they aren't included on a list of 150 "reportable illnesses" that, when detected, must be documented with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

CAFO operators like to claim that their facilities are biosecure -- sealed off from the world and therefore unaffected by it -- where workers shower before and after entering, wear protective coverings over hair and clothing, and visitors are highly restricted. But this biosecurity could also be seen as an incubator for the creation of super viruses. As the article points out, animals in these facilities are given eight times the antibiotics that the average American human consumes, therefore increasing the risk for confined livestock with antibiotic resistant immune systems to pass novel viruses unchecked among herds.

So far, four swine herds have been identified as having H1N1, one in Alberta, Canada (which was destroyed without compensation to the owner when discovered) one in Québec, Canada, and two herds in Argentina's Buenos Aires Province. But American pork farmers are terrified of the possibility of herd loss and trade sanctions on the already hurting industry, and as such, actively have sought to keep inspectors out.

The CAFO workers -- according to EHP, there are an estimated 54,000 working in swine and poultry CAFOs in the US -- could be a crucial link in the spread of disease. If a worker acquires swine flu, it would probably go undetected, as the systems in place currently do not vaccinate or observe them for the flu. It is not a stretch to suggest, then, that new super viruses emerging in these environments could be passed to unaware, impoverished and even sometimes illegal CAFO employees, unlikely to complain to the Occupational Safety Hazards Agency (OSHA) for fear of losing their job. The disease then has the potential to spread to their communities and beyond. Again, from EHP:

OSHA typically exempts facilities with fewer than 11 employees from routine inspection unless otherwise requested by employees or other agencies. Yet, like many other modern production facilities, CAFOs are largely automated, so a typical factory farm housing 2,000 sows requires a crew of just 7 people, according to Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Murphy-Brown, the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. And [Steven Wing, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill] adds that CAFOs in some regions are often staffed by black and Hispanic workers who might fear racial harassment for reporting safety infractions to OSHA, as well as low-income workers of all races who worry about keeping their jobs in the industry and access to health care, housing, and other services provided by their employers.

When asked how OSHA regulates zoonotic disease risk at CAFOs, a spokesman at the agency said its purview applies exclusively to bloodborne pathogens via the Bloodborne Pathogens Standard (29 CFR 1910.1030), which excludes respiratory infections such as swine flu.

So where does this leave the public? Information has been lacking on these and other issues relating to the consequences of our industrial food system for far to long. It is possible that the USDA and the rest of the Obama administration has dropped the ball on investigating this issue -- and that there will come a harsher version of the flu with no understood origin this fall. But the public deserves the facts about the consequences of industrial agriculture. And those facts, in the light of day, could force this administration to stop dragging its feet when it comes to building a sustainable food system.

Originally published on Civil Eats

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