Until now Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the giant factory farming operations where most animals are raised for meat in the US, have been mostly criticized for the cess pools they produce and for mistreatment of animals and workers. But following from there, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times recently there is a risk that MRSA, a virulent bacteria without any cure, is being incubated in hog operations in the midwest — a bug that is easily transmissible to humans via our genetic similarities to pigs. Now, a much bigger problem has presented itself — it seems a new virulent flu, which the World Health Organization is saying has “pandemic potential,” has been possibly linked to a CAFO in Perote, Mexico owned and operated by industrial pork operator Smithfield.
Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer. At the Perote, Mexico facility operated by Smithfield subsidary Granjas Carroll, 950,000 pigs were raised and sold for meat in 2008. According to the disease-tracking site Biosurveillance:
Residents [of La Gloria, Perote Municipality, Veracruz State, Mexico] believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to ‘flu.’ However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.
As of this moment, cases of the animal strain of the H1N1 virus have been reported in New York, California and Kansas. The virus has killed up to 68 people and there are currently 1,004 suspected cases in Mexico and 8 in the United States. However, there have been few mentions of the connection between swine flu and the Smithfield CAFO in the US news. There is an informative piece up on Huffington Post which gives a perspective on virulent flus and the role CAFOs might have played by David Kirby. In it, Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and a leading researcher of pathogen evolution in CAFOs makes the connection between industrial pork operations and potential disease clear. Here is a selection from Kirby’s piece quoting Silbergeld:
“CAFOs are not biosecure,” she told me. “They have high rates of ventilation and enormous number of animals that would die of heat stress unless the building was ventilated. We and others have measured bacteria and viruses in the environment around poultry and swine houses. They are carried by flies, too. These places are not bio-secure going in – or going out.”
“These mixing bowls of intensive operations of chickens and pigs are contributing to speeding up viral evolution,” Dr. Silbergeld added. “I think CAFOs are contributing.”
While it is not yet time to panic on the swine flu front, it is important to stay informed.
This reporter is about to get on a plane, but I will keep you updated as I know more.