Farm Authority Denies, But Says Samples Are Under Test
Subodh Varma | TIG
Till a few days ago, Edgar Hernandez was an unknown four-year-old boy living in a Mexican village. Today his innocent face is known the world over — he is the first confirmed case of swine flu. But how did Edgar get the swine flu virus? If you ask the villagers of La Gloria, where Edgar lives, they will point to the gigantic pig farm some 12 miles away.
This pig farm is part of a chain of similar farms controlled by one of the world’s biggest pig breeders and pork processors, Smithfield. Each of these has over 50,000 pigs. Reports appearing in the local press say that Smithfield owns 950,000 pigs in Mexico.
After the outbreak, Smithfield, based in Virginia, US, issued a statement saying that their facilities were not the origin of the current swine flu epidemic. But it admitted that its samples were under testing at the University of Mexico. So, the jury is still out.
Is a mega pig farm susceptible to generation of such new virus strains? Professor Vincent Racaniello, a virus expert from Columbia University, told STOI that it is very difficult to identify the exact source of origin of the virus. “The larger the farm, more the presence of swine viruses, and more the chances for contact between pigs and humans, hence more virus transfer likely from pig to human,” he said.
Last year, a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health had also pointed out the dangers of new mutant viruses arising from industrial farms. These pig farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) as they are known in the trade, are not your tiny mom-and-pop farms — they are gigantic cradle-to-grave machines. The animals are packed in huge pens, fattened on a high calorie diet and shot full with all kinds of antibiotics to keep them alive.
The average sow in one of these farms produces 20 piglets rather than the normal six to seven because of artificial insemination and hormonal treatment.
Smithfield’s facility at Tar Heel, North Carolina, could slaughter and convert 2,000 pigs into tinned product per day.
Each pig also produces about 3 gallons of excreta per day. So, an average farm churns out about 150,000 gallons of toxic poop daily. Toxic not just because it contains all kinds of bacteria and viruses, but also because it is a cocktail of chemicals pumped into the hapless pigs as well as those used to clean up their pens. The excreta, along with dead piglets, is stored in huge lagoons surrounding the farms, causing an unbearable stench. It seeps into the ground water and often overflows during rains.
Such mega factory-farms emerged after the hog industry in the US went through a phase of dizzy consolidation in the 1990s. In 1980, there were 667,000 hog farms with an average of 101 hogs each. In 2006, there were less than 50,000 hog farms with an average of 1,701 hogs each. Smithfield rode the wave and emerged the tops. It owns an estimated 10 million hogs in the US alone and has a market share of 26% in the processed pork industry. It had revenues of over $12 billion in 2008.
Smithfield also holds the dubious distinction of having had to pay up one of the biggest ever penalties for environmental pollution — $12.6 million, in 2000. It was charged with 23 counts of violation including destruction of several river systems in North Carolina. “The processed meats industry is committed to a low-cost, high volume business model,” says writer Paul Roberts, who has studied the sector at length.
CONTAMINATING INNOCENCE : File photo of Edgar Hernandez, the first confirmed case of swine flu, playing at La Gloria, Mexico, about 12 miles away from a pig firm owned by Smithfield