In the face of what may soon become a global pandemic, the pork industry has begun lobbying to have officials stop using the words “Swine Flu” for fear that people will stop eating their product.
The industry is probably as concerned about a drop-off in pork sales as it is about a growing concern about industrial pig farms, which some suspect may be at the root of the current outbreak.
Industrial pig farms, already a foul staple of the Southern U.S. landscape, have been on the rise in Mexico.
“According to state agents of the Mexican social security institute, the vector of this outbreak are the clouds of flies that come out of the hog barns, and the waste lagoons into which the Mexican-US company spews tons of excrement,” reported Mexico City newspaper La Jornada.
The world’s biggest pig meat producer, Virginia-based Smithfield, said it is co-operating with the Mexican authorities’ attempts to locate the possible source of the outbreak and will submit samples from its herds at its Granjas Carroll subsidiary to the University of Mexico for tests.
Smithfield, which is led by pork baron Joseph W Luter III, has previously been fined for environmental damage in the US. In October 2000 the supreme court upheld a $12.6m (£8.6m) fine levied by the US environmental protection agency which found that the company had violated its pollution permits in the Pagan River in Virginia which runs towards Chesapeake Bay. The company faced accusations that faecal and other bodily waste from slaughtered pigs had been dumped directly into the river since the 1970s.
Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MEP in England wrote in an editorial in the Guardian:
This is not the first time intensive, industrialised agriculture has been accused of spreading disease. Recent avian flu outbreaks, for example, have shown the extent to which the export-oriented corporate model of poultry production may have spread strains such as H5N1. In my report Avian flu: time to shut the intensive poultry flu factories? of 2006, I outlined how bird flu has been endemic in wild birds in much of the world without leaping the species barrier and causing people any harm.
But in damp and cramped conditions, a series of mutations can occur resulting in a highly pathogenic form. Within crowded chicken factory farms, the mild virus can evolve rapidly towards more dangerous and highly transmissible forms, capable of jumping species and spreading back into wild birds, which are defenceless against the new strain.
Experts are increasingly warning that the practices of intensive farming must be reviewed and regulated. While it will be difficult to reach any firm conclusions about this current outbreak of swine flu until more details emerge, it is crucial that the authorities undertake an urgent inquiry, in order to better understand the development and spread of animal-based epidemics which can be lethal to humans.