We’re hearing a lot about swine flu on the news these days. The phrase “global pandemic” is being tossed around quite a bit. All that’s missing to take us from the realm of the merely worrisome to the zone of full-blown panic is Dustin Hoffman in a hazmat suit.
But curiously, one phrase I haven’t been hearing an awful lot in connection with the swine flu is “factory farm.” A Mexican industrial hog farm is the likeliest point of origin for the virus, of course—the cramped conditions making them ideal incubators for all sorts of new disease—bird flu, human flu, and swine flu, mixing in some kind of hyper-evolutionary genetic soup. Scary stuff.
And it’s all the more reason to support small, local farms, buy organic, and cut down on meat consumption. As we’ve seen time and time again, in the food system as well as others (yeah, I’m looking at you, Wall Street!), smaller is better; slower is better; local is better.
The Huffington Post’s David Kirby has more:
Officials from the CDC and USDA will likely arrive in Mexico soon to help investigate the deadly new influenza virus that managed to jump from pigs to people in a previously unseen mutated form that can readily spread among humans.
One of the first things they will want to look at are the hundreds of industrial-scale hog facilities that have sprung up around Mexico in recent years, and the thousands of people employed inside the crowded, pathogen-filled confinement buildings and processing plants.
Industry calls these massive compounds “confined animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs (KAY-fohs), though most people know them simply as “factory farms.” You have seen them before while flying: Long white buildings lined up in tightly packed rows of three, four or more. Within each confinement, thousands of pigs are restricted to indoor pens and grain-fed for market, while breeding sows are kept in small metal crates where they spend most of their lives pregnant or nursing piglets.
In the last several years, U.S. hog conglomerates have opened giant swine CAFOs south of the border, including dozens around Mexico City in the neighboring states of Mexico and Puebla. Smithfield Foods also reportedly operates a huge swine facility in the State of Veracruz. Many of these CAFOs raise tens of thousands of pigs at a time. Cheaper labor costs and a desire to enter the Latin American market are drawing more industrialized agriculture to Mexico all the time, wiping out smaller, traditional farms, which now account for only a small portion of swine production in Mexico.
“Classic” swine flu virus (not the novel, mutated form in the news) is considered endemic in southern Mexico, while the region around the capital is classified as an “eradication area” - meaning the disease is present, and efforts are underway to control it. For some reason, vaccination of pigs against swine flu is prohibited in this area, and growers rely instead on depopulation and restriction of animal movement when outbreaks occur.
U.S. and Mexican epidemiologists and veterinarians will surely want to take swine samples from Mexican CAFOs and examine them for the newly discovered influenza strain (No one knows exactly how long it has been in circulation). And though it is too early to know if this new virus mutated and incubated on Mexican hog CAFOs, the industrialized facilities unquestionably belong on the list of suspects.
Pigs are nature’s notorious “mixing bowls” for inter-species infections, and many swine flu viruses have long contained human influenza genetic components. Then, in the late 1990’s - when industrialized swine production really took off in North America - scientists were alarmed to find that avian influenza genetic material was also mixed into the continent’s viral soup (see below). Fortunately, it was not the dreaded and lethal H5N1 strain, which most people know of as “bird flu.”
So where did this new, virulent and highly infectious influenza emerge from? According to Mexico’s Health Minister, Jose Angel Cordova, the virus “mutated from pigs, and then at some point was transmitted to humans.” It sure sounds like something happened on some farm, somewhere.
For years, leading scientists around the world have worried that large-scale, indoor swine “factories” would become breeding grounds for new pathogens that could more easily infect humans and then spread out rapidly in the general population - threatening to become a global pandemic.
We know that hog workers in Europe and North America are far more likely than others to be infected with potentially lethal pathogens such as MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), drug-resistant E. coli and Salmonella, and of course, swine influenza. Many scientists also believe that people who work inside CAFOs are more at risk of contracting and spreading these and other “zoonotic” diseases than those working in smaller-scale operations, with outdoor pens or pasture and far lower animal density.