Is Industrial Hog Farming a Piece of the Swine Flu Puzzle?

With all the press around the current swine flu epidemic, which has killed more than 150 people and sent thousands more to hospitals, it is somewhat disturbing that officials have not yet uncovered the source of the outbreak. Bloggers around the world have been working overtime to document the chain of illnesses, and more importantly to try to identify the source of the the virus in Mexico.

It now appears that the first illnesses were reported in small town called La Gloria, in the state of Vera Cruz in Mexico. La Gloria also happens to be the home to a massive hog farm owned by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of hogs.

As Ed Harris from Local Foods Research explains, “Bloggers… are exploring the links between Mexico’s industrial hog production industry—Smithfield Foods in particular—and the emergence of the new viral strain.”

Tom Philpott from Grist.org asserts that:

Smithfield operates massive hog-raising operations in Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated. The operations, grouped under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carrol, raise 950,000 hogs per year…. The Mexico City daily La Jornada has also made the link. According to the newspaper, the Mexican health agency IMSS has acknowledged that the orginal carrier for the flu could be the “clouds of flies” that multiply in the Smithfield subsidiary’s manure lagoons.

We don’t have any scientific proof that Smithfield is the source of this virus. But we have known for some time about the potential environmental and health risks related to Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—also known as CAFOs.

While there is no concern that pork coming from Smithfield is contaminated in any way, as swine flu is spread via human contact, not food, this story once again reinforces the need for Country of Origin Labeling Laws to help us track an increasingly global and industrialized food system.

It will be a real be a wake up call if health officials confirm that this potentially fatal health threat, which is now spreading through casual human contact, originated in CAFOs that are the source of much of our food.

UPDATE: A number of other journalists, including the Guardian (UK) have been investigating the potential links to Smithfields CAFOs. The company, Smithfield Foods, denies any connection to the outbreak.

UPDATE #2: The author of the original Grist post has a follow-up piece on the controversy.

About Dara O'Rourke

Associate Professor at UC Berkeley and Co-Founder of GoodGuide.
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20 Responses to Is Industrial Hog Farming a Piece of the Swine Flu Puzzle?

  1. Frank Stendal says:

    In point of fact, the World Health Organization reports 1 confirmed death in the US and 7 confirmed deaths in Mexico: http://www.who.int/csr/don/2009_04_29/en/index.html

  2. Chris Wigley says:

    Comments? You need to check your facts. According to WHO, only 7 known deaths from Swine Flu. Please don’t propagate misinformation.

  3. Brian says:

    Hmm perhaps this whole swine flu thing may become worse but the good ol’ fashion Flu is still more deadly for now.

    People just need to practice normal, everyday sanitary precautions like washing hands and whatnot. Oh yea… and eat more bacon!

  4. Russell says:

    Let’s leave it to the Doctors and Scientests instead of bloggers.

  5. Alan Kelly says:

    The swine flu may be spread by human-to-human contact, as reported by responsible news journalists, (compare to bloggers).

    By the same knowledge, other flu variants, e.g., bird flu virii are transmitted through airborne means.

  6. lionel says:

    All the above seems plausible, I spent a number of years trying to convince, a ,then, member of my family, a pig farmer in the UK, of the advantages of Organic farming practises.
    He seemed open to new innovations as long as it made financial sense, but repeatedly pointed out that his hands were tied by the supermarkets and the buying public’s habits and need for just CHEAP meat, until we, that means you and me, realise we do not need to eat meat everyday, and the meat we do eat should be of the highest quality, then farms like Smithfields will continue to thrive and potentially be responsible for some very nasty spread of disease.

  7. "agency IMSS has acknowledged that the orginal carrier for the flu could be the “clouds of flies” that multiply in the Smithfield subsidiary’s manure lagoons."

    Can anybody explain what are the steps that could potentially lead to a "cloud of flies" acquiring and transmitting the virus?

  8. Nic says:

    I use GoodGuide to be a responsible consumer. Having said that, I think it is very irresponsible to captilize on a heady piece of news to make a statement about an issue that may or may not be related. While CAFO’s clearly pose an evident threat to the environment and public health, I will reserve any conclusions or opinions on whether or not they are the source of swine flu. Let’s be truly resposible consumers and wait for some objective evidence rather than leaning on subjective speculation to connect the swine flu to a CAFO.

  9. Grrtch says:

    I agree with Nic… incredibly irresponsible to encourage speculation on the source of this dangerous flu when really we need good solid science to answer such a query. Speculation breeds panic and undermines rationality, not at all helpful when facing a potential public health crisis.

  10. Mary Carter says:

    While it will probably never be proven that factory farming is responsible for this outbreak of swine flu, jamming thousands of animals together into one spot certainly didn’t help. Corporations which insist on profit over health of the animals they raise and kill do a disservice to the animals and the people who consume them. The next problem will be Mad Cow loose here in the U.S. It will show up in the food chain sooner rather than later, given the practices of huge farms and the way the animals are fed and what they are fed on.

  11. Michael says:

    I find this post to be completely irresponsible, and I question why an organization striving to find objective data-driven solutions to measuring products would dive in with such rumor-mongering. Why would my opinion or any of your other readers OPINIONS matter here. Isn’t this a question for science?

    CAFOs may or may not be part of the problem here, but it is far too premature to begin such a loaded discussion. Right now, we are at the stage where those opposed to CAFOs for moral and ethical reasons are driving an agenda that they were responsible, while there is no real data there. Grist’s reporting is based upon a blog post that says that the locals blame a hog farm. The rest is complete and utter speculation.

    CAFOs cause environmental problems, sure, and some of these (pesticides, nutrients) have documented human health risk. When it comes to pathogens, though, it is the workers that are most at risk, not local populations. Right now, there are no known cases of pig workers being infected, and although I don’t trust Smithfield either, they have not documented any sick pigs. Furthermore, I know of no documented outbreaks of pathogenic disease, particularly viral but even bacterial, where flies transmitted microorganisms from a fecal pond directly to a local population as has been surmised.

    The actual DATA available do not suggest the CAFO was the cause, but who am I to judge? This is a question for the epidemiologists, who are down in Mexico trying to find the root of the problem right now. This is their job. Let them do it.

  12. Dara says:

    Thanks for all of the feedback on this post. I completely agree that there is no scientific proof to confirm this link, and said this myself in the post. Our main work at GoodGuide involves conducting systematic assessments of products and companies. But in the blog and news sections, we also try to cover breaking issues and events. This post was meant to simply raise a question and to elicit peoples’ reactions. Which clearly it did. We really appreciate people taking a position on this, and in giving us feedback on what information you do want from GoodGuide. We will focus in the future on providing information from more scientific sources.

    On one specific point: The Washington Post reported that the Mexican government reported 149 deaths as of yesterday. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/27/AR2009042702017.html

  13. Garrett says:

    I think that everybody is overacting and that there is very little known facts. We should just let the information develop as scientists investigate. As Russell said, we should just leave it to doctors and scientists. By the way Russell, you should definitely leave it to doctors and scientists seeing as you can’t even spell scientists correctly (just kidding). The whole topic is very interesting though. I’m only 14 years old and it interests me and most of my friends are talking about the Swine Flu. It’s becoming a poplular subject and almost everybody knows about it in such a short time.

  14. Phil says:

    My opinion about this "pandemic" is just one. I live in north Texas, and fort worth has closed it’s whole school district. That’s atleast 50,000 students, all because one case was confirmed in the district. I feel that if this company hadn’t had the strain that mutated into humans, it would have been another company, possibly at a different time. I also feel that keeping animals close is not to blame for this "pandemic". It could have just as well mutated off of a house pig ( teacup pig- look it up) that lives in Britain. It was just a coincidence that it started then, and there. I do know that if it gets any worse, people across the country are going to freak out, as they are in Texas, and the economy could severly suffer. I do believe that the twelve million vaccines of tamiflu will care for it, but also there should be some restrictions along the border, such as someone with symptoms has to be quarintined before can get into America. And everybody should be tested, because you can have it for seventy two hours without any symptoms.

  15. Lisa T says:

    Have you seen this piece on ABC News World News? The reporter went down to the village in Mexico where the first case is believed to come from. The reporter talked to villagers who live next to Smithfield’s pig farm and villagers are certain the flu is coming from the farm. Look at this video
    http://abcnews.go.com/search?searchtext=smithfield&type=

  16. Laura Cone says:

    Viruses and bacteria change and mutate and find a way to spread. As with all living things, they look for a way to adapt and survive. When we try to vaccinate viruses out of existence, they become stronger to survive the volatile environment.

  17. Greg says:

    Mismanagement of animals on ‘factory farms’ is proven to be a primary cause of disease in animals and humans, and a host of other problems.

    From Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the following report provides background analysis on industrial hog farming and the transmission of swine flu: http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Industrial_Agriculture/PCIFAP_FINAL.pdf

    It is called "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America."

  18. KrisBelucci says:

    Hi, cool post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for writing.

  19. Rocky says:

    The virus survives on hard surfaces like table tops, plastic surfaces and other areas where direct sunlight or high temperature is not seen for 72 hours. This is a long time for another person to be infected from this.More Information:
    http://www.manipalcureandcare.com/preventive/Flu-Influenza.aspx

  20. drurvimb says:

    yoo.. amazing thoughts ))

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