By Ed Harris
As the Swine Flu outbreak spreads from Mexico across the border to the US, bloggers are asking questions about the possible links between the outbreak of this new influenza strain and industrial hog production in Mexico. At present, the Mexican authorities are reporting that 81 people may have died following infection and over 1300 people have been admitted to hospitals for testing. 11 people in the US have been infected with the new H1N1 strain, which shares genetic material from human, avian and swine influenza viruses.
At present, mainstream news sources are focusing on reporting possible new cases (in UK, NZ) and reporting on statements from the WHO and the CDC, but have paid little attention to the source of the outbreak. Bloggers, however, are already exploring the links between Mexico's industrial hog production industry - Smithfield Foods in particular - and the emergence of the new viral strain.
Mexico accounted for 1.6% of the world pig stocks in 2007 - that's 15.5 million pigs. The largest hog producer in the world, Smithfield Foods owns two subsidiaries in Mexico, Norson and Granjas Carroll de México, which produced 467,000 and 950,000 hogs respectively in the 2008 fiscal year.
The second of these subsidiaries, Granjas Carroll de México, is based Perote in Vera Cruz state where the outbreak originated. Biosurveillance, which has produced this timeline of the outbreak, reported the following from local residents:
Residents 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.
Tom Philpott at Grist has linked this to reporting in the Vera Cruz-based newspaper La Marcha that blames Granjos Carroll for the outbreak, highlighting inadequate treatment of massive quantities of animal waste from hog production. Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats, and Paula Hay at Peak Oil Entrepreneur are raising the same questions, and asking why the mainstream media isn't exploring the CAFO connection with Smithfield's Mexican operations.
At the Huffington Post, David Kirby reports that CDC and USDA officials will likely investigate industrial hog operations as soon as they arrive in Mexico to investigate the sources of the outbreak. Kirby's piece reports on researchers' concerns that large-scale indoor animal production facilities have become breeding grounds for existing and emergent viral pathogens, including E. Coli, Salmonella and MRSA.
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.
But until now, hog workers with swine flu have rarely gone on to infect other people, save for close family members. And that is why this new strain of swine influenza virus is so vexing - and alarming. It seems to spread quite easily through casual human contact. (Huffington Post)
I'm sure we will hear more on this shortly, as officials start to investigate the source of this outbreak. More questions are bound to asked about whether we can afford the risk to human health presented by industrial farm animal production. For more on these risks of , check out this comprehensive report from the Pew Commission.