Swine Flu Possibly Linked to Smithfield Pig CAFO



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.

Hat tip to Tom Phillpott and Paula Hay for details on this developing story.

This reporter is about to get on a plane, but I will keep you updated as I know more.

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View Comments (11)

  1. Sunday, April 26th, 2009
    Thank you for the great information and links on this very real and very scary swine flu situations.

    The big question in my mind is will it be big enough (or deadly enough) to shift public opinion, and, more important, consumer behaviors.
  2. Jan Whitefoot
    Monday, April 27th, 2009
    What is it going to take for the American public to understand how dangerous all CAFOs are to the world's health and safety? I'm concerned how media cover-up protects the polluters. The PEW report said CAFOs should be phased out because they are so dangerous to our health. Why is no one listening?
  3. seldinia
    Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
    Check out this website http://www.swine-flu-tracker.com/ that tracks the spread of swine flu, it really puts things in perspective.
  4. angry
    Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
    Sad thing is that people are being made more aware about these CAFO's but the politicians aren't listening. What's it going to take? I guess we don't have enough money to be greasing any palms. Maybe when these diseases affect the "powers that be", they will sit up and listen!
  5. Alex Avery
    Friday, May 1st, 2009
    So if CAFOs are the source of dangerous flu variants, why aren't these things emerging in Iowa or North Carolina?

    Or, another way to ask the same quesion: Why does the CDC send people to Asia to get the material for next year's flu vaccine? Answer: Asia is where new human seasonal flu variants emerge (you know, the "regular" human flu viruses that kill 35,000+ people every year in the U.S.). The flu virus constantly evolves in Asia because there are so many diversified small farms where pigs, chickens, ducks (and their wild counterparts) cohabitate.

    Because of the health threat, the World Health Organization has been (correctly) urging farmers in Asia (and everywhere) to
    1. separate livestock by species, and
    2. Keep them away from wild birds/animals that can carry/transmit pathogens.
    In short, confined animal feeding operations CAFOs!

    These are the same animal rearing methods you guys blame for the long-standing reality of biologically promiscuous flu viruses shared among animals that have coevolved (and swapped viruses) for millenia. So, everyone but you foodies is an idiot?

    I've visited dozens of CAFOs across North America (and elsewhere) and all have been models of environmental responsibility (i.e. organic nutrient recycling) and natural resource use efficiency.
    Cheers,
  6. Friday, May 1st, 2009
    Well, Alex. The head virologist of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that analysis has shown the current Swine Flu is composed predominantly of the 1998 swine flue strain, which DID arise in a North Carolina CAFO. This virus, according to him, has been kicking around for the last 10 years picking up bits of other swine flus (having been passed back and forth between North American and Asia) and has now appeared in Mexico. Again, this is from the CDC.

    That said, the fact that human flu virus emerges in Asia has no bearing on swine flu. Swine flu circulates in pig populations throughout the world. Pigs are transported over long distances and have ample opportunities to spread and share the virus. To repeat, the 1998 strain that comprises the current H1N1 virus AROSE IN NORTH CAROLINA.

    And I think it's more than a bit of a stretch to suggest that the WHO recs lead directly to CAFOs as the ideal management system. I suggest you read a bit more about the dangers of keeping hundreds of thousands of immuno-compromised animals crammed into indoor facilities and kept in cages too small to allow them to move.

    I also highly doubt you've visited "dozens of CAFOs" anywhere -- the danger of contamination of CAFO pigs BY HUMANS is so intense that visitors are rarely given access to the facilities. Unless, of course, you work for a pork company, that is.

    Finally, the idea that CAFOs are "models of environmental responsibility" is laughable on its face since they are responsible for environmental degradation in every community in which they exist. North Carolina has had repeated public health disasters related to massive hog manure spills (floods would be a better term) as well as degraded air quality in communities that "host" a CAFO. See this CDC webpage for good articles on the environmental dangers of CAFOs.
  7. Matt Rosenberg
    Friday, May 1st, 2009
    Alex,

    First, no responsible blogger here or anywhere else has stated that H1N1 has been caused by the Smithfield operations in Mexico. They have simply pointed out that it is extremely relevant and further investigation is warranted. It is well documented that these operations are an environmental disaster and it is entirely likely they are part of what caused this outbreak.

    You say
    "These are the same animal rearing methods you guys blame for the long-standing reality of biologically promiscuous flu viruses shared among animals that have coevolved (and swapped viruses) for millenia."

    That's not really true:
    "Industrial farm animal production (ifap) stands in sharp contrast to previous animal farming methods because of its emphasis on production efficiency and cost minimization. For most of the past 10,000 years, agricultural practice and animal husbandry were more or less sustainable, as measured by the balance between agricultural inputs and outputs and ecosystem health, given the human population and rate of consumption. ifap systems, on the other hand, have shifted to a focus on growing animals as units of protein production. Rather than balancing the natural productivity of the land to produce crops
    to feed animals, ifap imports feed and medicines to ensure that the animals make it to market weight in the shortest time possible. Animals and their waste are concentrated and may well exceed the capacity of the land to produce feed or absorb the waste. Not surprisingly, the rapid ascendance of ifap has produced unintended and often unanticipated environmental and public health concerns...."

    This from The Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Report on Industrial Farm
    Animal Production in America.

    Are these the "Foodies" you speak of?

    It's obvious that Industrializing our food chain and making animals into units of protein is a fairly new phenomenon that has only been with us for 50+ years.

    In addition, I would add another quote from someone you would no doubt characterize as a "crazy foodie," Dr. Marion Nestle:

    "Our [Pew] report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty—and often antibiotic resistant--microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else."

    Please do us all a favor and crawl back under the rock that is "The Hudson Institute"
  8. elanor
    Friday, May 1st, 2009
    Alex,

    You seem to be suggesting that CAFOs do not exist in Asia, but that's a flawed assumption. That region is now a major production center for industrial livestock operations. And although all the attention has been focused on backyard flocks, avian flu outbreaks have been tied to CAFOs in Asia and other developing countries. Here's some research compiled by Food & Water Watch:

    * In Laos, 42 of 45 the avian flu outbreaks reported in spring 2004 occurred in industrial operations – and 38 were centered in the capital of Vientiane. The few small operations that did have outbreaks were located near commercial operations. The virus killed 50,000 birds, and another 100,000 were destroyed.

    * In Egypt, the first outbreaks were reported at several factory farms in early 2006, resulting in the destruction of about 200,000 birds. Yet, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced, “The time has come to get rid of the idea of breeding chickens on the roofs of houses.”

    * In Nigeria, the virus spread from a farm with 40,000 birds to 30 other factory farms, killing 150,000 birds in 2006.

    * In Vietnam, 117,000 birds were destroyed at a factory farm in Ha Tay Province in February 2004.

    * In Russia, 460,000 birds were destroyed at a factory farm in Kurgan province in 2005.

    * The virus has also broken out in large poultry operations in Cambodia, India, Japan and the Ukraine.

    I'd also challenge your assertion that "foodies" are the only ones who think CAFOs are the problem. The CDC, not known for employing idiots, conducted research suggesting that the avian flu virus mutated into its deadly form when it reached CAFOs (where the close proximity of animals allowed the virus to move from bird to bird, mutating rapidly). Cite: Webster, Robert G. et al. “H5N1 outbreaks and enzootic influenza.” US Centers for Disease Control, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12(1):3-8, January 2006.

    The mainstream media has done a pathetic job of looking at these connections, but that doesn't mean that the science isn't there.