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Is cheap, confinement raised meat lighting the fuse on the next flu pandemic?

Lest we start to play ‘Healthy Days are Here Again”, Aunt Toby would like to remind readers that the so-called Swine Flu (H1N1) is still with us.
“Just as many New Yorkers were beginning to forget the threat of swine flu, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a hastily called news conference Thursday evening that swine flu had been confirmed in the sick man, whom colleagues identified as Mitchell Wiener, the assistant principal of Intermediate School 238 in Hollis. He was being treated at Flushing Hospital Medical Center, where he was on a ventilator.” Latest on Swine Flu in NYC Schools

Update: Mr. Weiner, the gentleman mentioned above, succumbed to H1N1 and died Sunday evening.first swine flu death in New York City

For current updates on H1N1, see US CDC: Swine Flu Update

What Aunt Toby wants to talk about is this: Where the hell did this thing come from? Remember ‘bird flu” – remember all the hooha about THAT? And do you remember what happened with that, either?

Me, neither. Aunt Toby is sort of like everyone else – if it doesn’t come and bang on my door, then I’m not paying attention. And we should all pay a LOT more attention.

NC Hog Farm Birth Site of Flu
“The new H1N1 influenza virus that continues to spread through the United States has ancestry in a swine flu outbreak that first struck a North Carolina hog farm more than 10 years ago, according to scientists studying the strain’s genetic makeup….The current strain’s eight genetic segments are all associated with swine flu, said Raul Rabadan, a Columbia University scientist studying the new H1N1 genetic sequence that was made public this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention….”
“This virus was found in pigs here in the United States,” Rabadan said in an interview. “They were getting sick in 1998. It became a swine virus.”
It spread among pregnant sows in Newton Grove, N.C., causing them to abort their litters. The virus then spread to pigs in Texas, Iowa and Minnesota –putting epidemiologists on alert about the new viral strain and the potential for a human outbreak.
Scientists don’t yet know when or where the current H1N1 strain first emerged. They know only that it was identified after people in Mexico began falling ill with the fevers and aches..”
“ A May 1999 N&O story titled “Disease detectives untangle mystery of mutant flu virus” (available in the paper’s online archives) reported that the 1998 bug — a pig virus “wrapped in a shell of human proteins” — was isolated by a [North Carolina] state government veterinary lab. Similar mutations are suspected in earlier flu outbreaks, including the 1918 Spanish flu that killed more than 20 million people worldwide.
According to that story, the virus was discovered in August 1998 at a 2,400-sow breeding farm owned by Newton Grove, N.C.-based Hog Slat Inc., a leading builder of factory-style hog farms. The company is also one of Sampson County’s largest employers — as is Smithfield Foods, the Virginia-based corporation that owns numerous hog farms near the Mexican community where the earliest case of the current swine flu was identified.” Swine Flu Genes

Smithfield Foods. Remember that name because there is a more recent story about them as well:
“For centuries…peasant farmers here have eked a living from hogs… Old customs and jobs are dying and the air itself is changing, however, transformed by an American newcomer, Smithfield Foods. Almost unnoticed by the rest of the Continent, the agribusiness giant has moved into Eastern Europe with the force of a factory engine, assembling networks of farms, breeding pigs on the fast track, and slaughtering them for every bit of meat and muscle that can be squeezed into a sausage….In less than five years, Smithfield enlisted politicians in Poland and Romania, tapped into hefty European Union farm subsidies and fended off local opposition groups to create a conglomerate of feed mills, slaughterhouses and climate-controlled barns housing thousands of hogs.
It moved with such speed that sometimes it failed to secure environmental permits or inform the authorities about pig deaths — lapses that emerged after swine fever swept through three Romanian hog compounds in 2007, two of which were operating without permits. Some 67,000 hogs died or were destroyed, with infected and healthy pigs shot to stanch the spread.”
Smithfield Takes Over Pig Production in Eastern Europe

Why pigs? Why this and why now?

Pigs are amazing creatures – they have this ability, unknown in any other mammal, to act as a cauldron for viruses (and as a ‘mix and match’ operation as well) of creatures totally unlike pigs. Even totally not mammals – the current ‘swine flu’ is actually a tricky little creature that consists of swine, bird and human virus segments – it’s a ‘threefer’ – and because it’s got that human virus ‘hook’ to it, human beings can get it. And for those folks who are yawning about now, I’d like to remind them that the 1918 flu epidemic which killed tens of millions of people (most between the ages of 15 and 40) around the world, was just such a ‘combo virus’.

Scientists who have been able to extract viral materials from the cadaver of a person struck down by the 1918 flu, have identified that killer virus as another avian-based virus – but how can human beings catch a bird virus? Because it got mutated inside the bodies of swine who can act as the intermediaries of both bird and human viruses – a bird-swine-human virus salad bar.

It stands to reason then that birds and pigs should not be hanging out together in great numbers, right? It really is a ‘no duh’ that we should be giving hogs and birds, especially domesticated birds, a whole lot of air space between them so that they are not playing ‘changing partners’ with their viral material, right?

Well, we don’t. Companies such as Smithfield Foods (and they are not the only villains of the piece here – but they certainly are now the largest and the fastest moving) have taken advantage of modern agricultural technologies and of places where people do not ask a whole lot of questions, to create mega hog farms, putting thousands upon thousands of hogs into confinement conditions, with moist bedding, little air transport, and a whole lotta disease stuff going on. On the Eastern Shore area of Delaware and Maryland, chicken giants such as Purdue do the same exact thing. We will not discuss the environmental impact of this – that’s a discussion for another time. But the outbreak of H1N1 points a finger at the swine flu outbreak in Eastern Europe in 2007 and the bird flu outbreaks in Vietnam and Indonesia in 2004, 2005 and 2006(two places where, interestingly enough, pigs, chickens and other domestic fowl are raised together on a traditional basis) and this year in Egypt and also Vietnam.
Is high concentrated hog and chicken farming lighting the fuse on a killer influenza epidemic on a pandemic scale? And is there anything we can do to slow or stop this?

Well, only scientists can say what they think about pandemics. This is scary stuff and frankly I don’t think any country’s government is ready. Tamiflu is just not going to cut it since viruses hop around and change partners at will and it takes months to come up with a new Tamiflu to combat a new mutation.
But we CAN do something about companies which take advantage of lack of regulation and enforcement to put in high concentrations of hog and bird raising. This type of agricultural practice has turned out to be disastrous from an environmental and public health standpoint. Wouldn’t it be better to look at the alternative? Which is?

Pasture raising. De-centralized agriculture. The way agriculture was in this country before the Second World War. What was raised in a state was, by and large, eaten in the state. I remember reading a study done by Rodale where they looked at how self-sufficient the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was in the 1930s versus how self-sufficient it was in the 1980s. The statistics were staggering – in the 1930s, the vast majority of food that Pennsylvanians ate, all year round, was raised in Pennsylvania. Now, the numbers have flipped; the vast majority of food that people in Pennsylvania eat is raised…elsewhere and trucked or flown in.

We have all gotten so used to eating veggies and fruits out of season through the miracle of long distance refrigerated freight, that we are now at the mercy of what happens in other states. Want a salad in January or February and there is really bad weather in California or Florida? No greens. Want grapes in the spring and something happens in Chile? Out of luck. Want affordable bread and something happens in the Midwest (like what happened to grain stocks a couple of years ago)? Bread gets really really expensive. And so does animal feed – which makes conventionally raised meat and chicken a LOT more expensive.
It really would be better for us all if we supported and encouraged out local (as in state and neighboring states) farmers to grow everything they can, under the healthiest situation they can. That means pasture raising meat, chickens and eggs – no houses with tens of thousands of pigs and birds, releasing thousands of tons of manure at one go. (remember the lagoon failures in North Carolina a couple of years ago? The Cape Fear River still has not come back from that) That also means having farmers return to crops and varieties that worked for them and technologies that work in the state’s environment. In Upstate New York for example, grain farmers are returning to varieties that were grown in the 19th century, and grain mills are being built again. It certainly is not the same sort of stuff that comes out of the Midwest, but it’s here..it’s close..and it will provide an alternative. Tomato growers in Western New York are taking advantage of greenhouse and hydroponic technologies to produce tomatoes all year round. Their tomatoes can be on customers’ tables within hours of picking.

Aunt Toby lives in a county that has not had a large agricultural industry in probably 50 years. Yet – I can go to my farmers’ market and find and buy pasture raised beef, pork, lamb, turkey (pasture raised turkeys?????), chicken and eggs – not from one farmer only, but several. This is amazing – and our county is not exactly what I would call wealthy. We’re not talking Westchester County here – we’re talking about a place that is one of those ‘used to be big in manufacturing’ sorts of places. It is not just a case of ‘kindness’ either(though that is a factor also) – it’s a case of people’s being concerned about their health, the health of the community and the health of the animals: pasture raising integrates manure and other products into the environment in a small, ongoing sort of way. No lagoons to fail. No ungodly ammonia from chicken batteries. Also, no hormones, no antibiotics (to also end up in the environment), and animals getting enough fresh air and sunshine on a daily basis so that they are not subject to viral infections that can be passed on.

The other thing is this: In those huge hen houses and swine farrowing facilities, there are people working under the same conditions as the animals are living – exposed to the ammonia, exposed to the manure, exposed to the diseases, and exposed to the viruses that are being cooked up by the swine. Under pasture raising, the amount of exposure to the animals is actually pretty limited to moving the animals to a new piece of pasture, in the sun and breeze.

A lot safer for all of us.

Concerned about swine flu, avian flu and the role of confinement animal raising in public health? Contact your state health department and your state legislators and demand that these types of operations be stopped. Not grandfathered. Stopped. Torn down. Eliminated. Also Contact the US Agriculture Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and your Congressional Representatives and Senators. What happens in North Carolina and Delaware and other states affects every single one of us. Those Smithfield Farms pigs in Mexico sure did not care that their viruses came from North Carolina – but the folks in Mexico and Texas and now places like Wisconsin and New York City certainly do.

And so should every single one of us.

(illustration courtesy of Hector Aiza Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary)

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4 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that pigs are the “cauldron of viruses” that some have told us about. It seems to me that there are many groups who benefit from this ‘surprise’ outbreak. It seems to me that blaming pigs is an ‘easy’ out (they are naturally ‘dirty,’ so obviously they are at fault for this disaster).

    There are many movers and shakers who benefit from this event:

    Politicians get us focusing on something other than the economic problems.

    Big Pharma gets many billions of dollars in guaranteed, new, vaccine production contracts.

    Mexican drug lords get off the front pages as something else gets blamed for the deaths of innocent Mexicans.

    We have multiple reports available which point to labs where this exact virus is being developed for study. It seems to me that a little industrial espionage could have come in to play to get some of this material released.

    Rodger Bailey, MS
    HQ For Swine Influenza (Flu)

  2. htwollin says:

    Sorry, Rodger..I can’t agree with you. Many scientific investigations for the last forty years have shown a very tight connection for swine being the intermediaries for their own, avian and human viruses and their bodies do seem to have this cauldron like effect where viruses play ‘ring the changes’, switching around bits and pieces of viral materials, producing viruses that swine can pass on to human beings, especially under confinement raising conditions. Research in confinement operations in North Carolina have found that a high percentage of ag workers in those barns (read the articles cited above) have antibodies to these viruses. IMHO, this is not some sort of government or business conspiracy, but it is, again, my two cents, a case where business has taken advantage of lax enforcement and monitoring and has produced a situation where both from the environmental side and the public health side, they are endangering all of us. So far, H1N1 is not behaving like the 1918 influenza, but we may only be dodging the bullet on a situation that if this sort of thing is not stopped, we could be unleashing something not only here but also in Eastern Europe, that will behave like the avian flu in Southeast Asia, which had a 60% mortality rate.

  3. Fantastic. care to share your sources 🙂 ?

  4. htwollin says:

    Go to the links and read the stories and read the information that those links have been linked to – the evidence that swine have the ability to recombine viral materials is pretty much irrefutable at this point…

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