Mounting evidence suggests that the recent outbreak of swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, may have begun as a result of massive-scale farming practices.
In the community known as La Gloria in Perote, Mexico, 1,800 of the village's 3,000 residents—or 60 percent—came down with an upper-respiratory infection in a period of six weeks, beginning in February. Among those residents was 5-year-old Edgar Hernandez. He later was identified as the first known person to positively test for H1N1.
Tom Philpott, a journalist for the environmental website Grist, reported that health officials immediately correlated the outbreak of illness with the presence of a massive industrial hog farm in Perote, partly owned by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world.
Philpott is not alone in suspecting that concentrated animal feeding operations contribute to the development of pandemic viruses. "Hogs in confinement are very susceptible to these kinds of viruses," said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin. "They are so susceptible that … employees have to go through a hygiene process before they can go in and have contact with these animals. It would be very customary that they … might have to shower and then wear company-supplied clothes and shoes."
In fact, hogs on CAFOs are routinely administered antibiotic and antiviral medications for prevention and treatment of disease. This allows pathogens to develop resistance to medication. "It's hard to imagine more ideal conditions than getting all of one species packed together and then to regularly vaccinate it," Philpott said. He said the Perote CAFO had 950,000 animals.
"We have a smoking gun and it's smelling a little like roasted pork," Kastel said.
Industrial hog operations also have what Philpott describes as "knee-deep waste that goes into cesspools." Smaller farms have much less waste, he says, which is absorbed into the soil at a sustainable rate.
"Chemical and infectious compounds from swine and poultry waste are able to migrate into soil and water near CAFOs," a posting on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website warns. The CDC further states that "manure-related discharges" may contain parasites, bacteria and viruses, "which can cause disease in animals and humans."
While Mexican officials are awaiting test results of residents and livestock, Smithfield has denied any connection to the H1N1 outbreak. Whether Smithfield is liable may be a moot point, according to Philpott.
"The bigger story now, I think, is the question of whether factory hog farming specifically—not necessarily just in Mexico—has something to do with this outbreak. Is something about the way we're farming pigs creating these novel strains of flu?
"I think the time has come to really start thinking about regulating these operations. … If the regulatory agencies—[U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency]—were to take seriously what the public health people are saying about the potential for pandemic from hog farms, I think you'd have to close them down."