The possible, the probable, and even the unlikely links between the recent H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak and modern pork production have received unprecedented attention in the past weeks.
I have personally written three pieces on the flu (here, here, and here). My newspaper article in particular received a tsunami of feedback. While I might normally receive a handful or two of emails after each of my EcoChef columns, in this case I received nearly four times that amount. What was particularly interesting about the feedback was that is was so clearly bifurcated: praising me for exploring these issues and asking for more clarification or lambasting me for my ignorance and stupidity for writing such nonsense.
In my defense, I want to clearly point out that I have never claimed there was a direct link between the H1N1 and CAFOs, from the Mexican Smithfield plant or any other.
That said, the ecologist in me is fairly certain that CAFOs have a role to play. Why? Because in host / parasite interactions, the parasite (influenza variant) needs high densities of its host (in this case pigs, humans, and birds) to thrive. At low host densities, the parasite can’t spread and reproduce, and it slowly diminishes (and/or becomes less harmful to the host). It is in high density situations that parasites can really do some damage.
A common, uncontroversial example: Human hospitals. They have recently come under fire for being breeding grounds for extremely virulent and harmful pathogen strains. Hospitals have high densities of sick and often immobile patients, who are regularly given antibiotics and other microbials to fend off these infections. Over time, unfortunately, these only make the pathogens stronger.
In the animal world, the closest thing to a human hospital that I can think of is a CAFO – a confined animal feeding operation. They, like hospitals, have high densities of often relatively immobile animals. These animals are often so “sensitive to disease” (read: sick) that they need regular administrations of antibiotics to keep them alive. Over time, unfortunately, these antibiotics only make the pathogens stronger.
Compare this with the small fraction of free range pigs that are given antibiotics. Dan Bagley of Clark Summit Farm says he’s given one pig antibiotics in five years – that’s 0.4% of his pigs / year vs. frequent antibiotics administration to 100% of the pigs in a CAFO herd.
So far, everything I’ve written is scientifically true but also abstract. So, let’s get to the meat of the matter: what do we know now about the origin of this last worldwide virus outbreak?
The unfortunate fact is that we are probably never going to know the whole truth. But we do, fortunately, know this: the H1N1 swine flu did come from pigs, although they were probably not the most recent host.
Jason Gale reported on Bloomberg that the first genetic analysis of the virus has recently been completed by Richard Webby and his team at the World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Memphis,
According to Gale’s article:
By analyzing the sequence of hundreds of amino acids coded by each of the flu virus’s eight genes, Webby found the virus’s closest relatives are an H1N1 flu strain that has circulated widely among North American pigs since the late 1990s, and one from Europe that’s been in swine for at least three decades.
The article does point out that there are also recent avian links (perhaps from duck ponds being used to wash pig houses?).
The bottom line is this: there is a direct pig link in the genetics. This is science, not speculation.
That doesn’t point a smoking gun at CAFOs specifically. They may or may not have been involved. But, if you look at the numbers of pigs in CAFOs (huge) vs. free range animals (a very small percent), the probabilities point in the factory farm direction.
Which brings me back to an email response I received to my Oakland Tribune article. Jeremy Russell of the National Meat Association, wrote:
Dear Mr. French,
Your column today ‘Know where your pork comes from’ shows that you
have been keeping up with neither the news nor the science about H1N1
and pig production.
Public health officials in Mexico have found no evidence of a link
between the outbreak and the swine herds in Veracruz. Furthermore,
part of the purpose of a confined feeding operation is to protect
swine herds from viral infections which come from the outside and
contain them inside if and when they do occur. I would expect an
ecologist to understand this.
There is a reason the operation in Mexico is not unique — it is built
on a model that is effective, efficient and biosecure. And with sound
management practices waste discharge can be avoided entirely. In
fact, EPA last year set a zero-discharge standard for CAFOs in the
United States. (EPA has all the info posted at
It’s your responsibility as a columnist to get the facts right, and
your linkage between H1N1 and modern pork production practices is
ignorant at best.
Director of Communications and Government Relations
National Meat Association
I think it is clear that the science proves Russell to be wrong on all accounts. To respond to his last point first – we now do have a clear link between H1N1 and modern pork production. Done.
But more importantly, there is a significant body of evidence that pig CAFOs are not even remotely biosecure. For example, Rachel Ehrenberg reported in Science News:
The manure generated by thousands of cows or pigs doesn’t just stink — it may seriously affect human health.
New research examining two decades’ worth of livestock production data finds a positive relationship between increased production at industrial farms and infant death rates in the counties where the farms reside. The study reported in the February American Journal of Agricultural Economics implicates air pollution and suggests that Clean Air Act regulations need to be revamped to address livestock production of noxious gases.
Infant death from noxious gases? This is just part of the CAFO problem. These reports from the pig-loving University of Iowa discuss other serious health, economic, and environmental issues – including the effects of manure spills, fish kills, impaired watersheds, and decreased recreational opportunities: Study 1, Study 2.
There are numerous points in each of these reports that directly contradict Russell’s claim of biological containment. Still not convinced? What about an extensive 2½-year examination conducted by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), which says:
Air quality degradation is also a problem in and around IFAP facilities because of the localized release of significant quantities of toxic gases, odorous substances, and particulates and bioaerosols that contain a variety of microorganisms including human pathogens. Some of the most objectionable compounds are the organic acids, which include acetic acid, butyric acids, valeric acids, caproic acids, and propanoic acid; sulfur containing compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and dimethyl sulfide; and nitrogen-containing compounds including ammonia, methyl amines, methyl pyrazines, skatoles and indoles.
The H1H1 swine flu outbreak has been devastating, even fatal, for many. One “silver lining” of this worldwide problem is the attention it has placed on modern pig farming practices.
Ultimately, it comes down to this: why do we have these CAFOs in the first place? The pork industry tells us it’s to protect the pigs. This is an obvious red herring, as pigs have coexisted with humans for thousands of years. And ironically, it is this partial separation and concentration of pigs and humans that makes strains of bacteria like the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA for short) so virulent (a separate and possibly more serious phenomenon).
Successful free-range pig farmers are making a strong comeback, spurred along no doubt by the success of Willis Farm’s collaboration with Niman Ranch. CAFOs are a failed experiment in farming that survives on subsidies and legal protectionism. If CAFO farmers were required to pay the full social, economic, and environmental cost for their practices, we would surely see a decline in this destructive practice.
A final personal note: I am not “against” the meat industry. I spent part of my childhood on a farm where I learned to raise, slaughter, and butcher the animals that we grew. I am not squeamish about meat production, and I personally eat meat and cook it professionally. However, we need to return to a method of raising animals that is productive for the environment, not harmful to it.