Swine flu, pigs and profits
Published May 6, 2009 3:42 PM
After a week where fear of a swine flu pandemic spread much faster than the
virus itself, the media hype is starting to slow down. The virus is showing up
in more parts of the world, but the number of cases, and more importantly, the
number of hospitalizations and deaths, appear to be less than what was
It’s still too soon to predict how widespread and deadly this new
variation of influenza virus will be. Meanwhile, controversy is growing about
how the new virus got started.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the genetic
strain was first seen in hog farms in the U.S. in 1998. However, the current
outbreak seems to have started in Mexican towns near a huge factory-farm pig
operation owned by the U.S. corporate giant Smithfield and operated by its
Mexican subsidiary Granjas Carroll de México. A 2006 article in Rolling
Stone magazine estimated that Smithfield alone produced 26 million tons of
animal waste a year—the byproduct of over $11 billion in sales.
Local residents of La Gloria and Perote in the Mexican state of Veracruz have
been fighting the pork-breeding giant for years. The factory-farm was first set
up in 1994, soon after the beginning of the North American Free Trade
Agreement. NAFTA allowed the “free” flow of capital across the
border, allowing U.S. corporations to set up factories in Mexico to exploit
labor there without restriction and to flood the Mexican economy with corn and
other commodities. Some believe Smithfield set up the hog plants in Mexico to
avoid even the weak regulations in the U.S.
Producing close to a million hogs per year, the company maintains huge lagoons
of hog manure as well as open-air dumps for the rotting remains of hogs that
die before being slaughtered. Fumes from the hog waste foul the air for miles
and residents believe that their ground water may be contaminated. Swarms of
flies that feed on the manure infest the nearby towns.
It is well known that flies can spread avian flu by carrying infected bird
droppings from place to place. It is possible that the flies feeding and
breeding in the hog manure were also in contact with bird droppings and became
the mechanism of mixing virus material from hogs, birds and humans that may
have triggered or accelerated the outbreak.
According to reports from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, local residents
tried to block the construction of the farm as early as 2005. In 2008 several
activists were arrested by the Veracruz authorities, who have worked closely
with Granjas Carroll to suppress opposition to the huge hog operation.
Long before the swine flu outbreak made the international news, hundreds of La
Gloria residents were complaining of severe respiratory infections, with many
of these infections developing into pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the severe
complications of influenza infection. Veratect, a private U.S. company that
monitors health outbreaks around the world for its subscribers, noticed the
outbreak in Veracruz about a month earlier and called the CDC. With its
attention still on alleged (and nonexistent) bioterrorism, the CDC apparently
ignored the calls for several weeks.
The first reported confirmed case of the new swine flu virus was a young boy in
La Gloria who has since recovered. The outbreak spread to Mexico City and other
Mexican areas as well as New York, California, Texas and other locations in the
U.S. and around the world. As of May 3, the World Health Organization was
reporting about 900 confirmed cases—more than half in
Mexico—including 20 deaths (19 in Mexico and one in the U.S.).
Health officials have reported that the current strain of virus is a mix of
genetic material from viruses that infect hogs and birds as well as humans. For
almost a decade, world and U.S. health officials have focused on so-called
avian or bird flu (labeled H5N1), which has spread around the world but has not
“jumped” to human populations. Although some people contracted bird
flu from close proximity to poultry and water fowl, no human-to-human
transmission has been reported.
This new swine flu is a variation of H1N1, which is much more common in human
flu and spreads by human-to-human transmission. At least one case of suspected
human-to-pig transmission has been reported in Canada, where several hogs were
found to have contracted the virus after a worker who had been in Mexico
visited a hog farm.
Because the most number of cases have come from Mexico, some right-wing Fox
media commentators have tried to blame Mexican immigrants for bringing the
virus across the border, and may use the fear over swine flu to whip up even
more immigrant bashing.
The fact that the U.S. cases seem to be among tourists or those close to
tourists has so far limited the attacks on immigrants. Relatively little
attention in the big-business mass media, however, has been given to the
Smithfield connection or the fact that similar huge and hazardous plants can be
found in North Carolina, Utah and elsewhere. Will the corporate criminals who
profit from these environmental and public health disasters be held
Cohen is a doctor of public health.
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