•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

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 originally projected.

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 responsible?

Cohen is a doctor of public health.