The real pandemic

The influenza A(H1N1) virus is not transmitted to humans by eating pork, that much is now known and said. But what are the origins of this virus, winging across our air-travel interdependent world? Why is this question never asked? Why are the big doctors of our world looking for a vaccine for all kinds of influenza without checking on what makes us so susceptible to pandemics, year after year? Is there something more to the current contagion?

Yes. The current pandemic is linked to the way we produce food—in factory farms, via vertically integrated business. Experts say the global food industry, like the global banking industry, is too big and out of control. It needs to be fixed.

Take swine flu—now renamed. We know it started in La Gloria, a little town in Mexico. We know a young boy suffering from fever in March became the first confirmed victim of the current outbreak, which, even as I write, has claimed some 42 people and affected 2,371 in 24 countries. What is not said is this ill-fated town is right next to one of Mexico’s biggest hog factories, owned by the world’s largest pig processor, Smithfield Foods. What is also not said is people in this town have repeatedly protested about water pollution, terrible stench and waste against the food giant.

Nothing happened then. Nothing is happening now. Smithfield has done what all biggies do when nearly caught: deny any wrong-doing and claim ‘their science’ and ‘their tests’ show their herds, always kept in pristine conditions, are just fine. Interestingly, when The Guardian’s special correspondent, Felicity Lawrence, wrote to Smithfield asking for test results, she got no data, only the usual corporate response: “These are unfounded opinions and unrestrained internet rumours”. Simultaneously, all the food giants have ganged up to ensure the World Health Organization changes the name of the contagion and exhorts people to eat more pork, manufactured in their mega-swine factories. Business as usual.

There is more to swine flu than the mere location of the factory near its epicenter, suggests Lawrence. For instance, virologists at the US-based Centre for Disease Control (cdc) have found, after genetic fingerprinting, the strain of this swine flu is the same as first identified on industrial pig farms in North Carolina. This American state has the most dense pig population in North America; with such a massive concentration of farm animals, it is feared, viruses can run the evolutionary track—jumping and reassorting between species—at unprecedented speed.

It is this toxic debt of industrial livestock farming lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of the legendary Kennedy, investigated to his peril. His Crimes Against Nature documents how the Pork Producers Council launched a smear campaign against his organization, Waterkeeper Alliance, for their campaign to regulate the toxins of industrial food factories. Kennedy’s clients were the fishermen of Neuse river in North Carolina, who in 1991 lost their livelihood because of fish deaths caused by a mysterious Pfiesteria outbreak. Research led investigators to the hog factories: millions of litres of waste, mixed with heavy metals, antibiotics, hormones, deadly biocides, and viruses and microbes. The power of the hog barons, Kennedy writes, was legendary. They ‘persuaded’ legislators in Missouri and Illinois to make it a crime to photograph farm animals; 13 states introduced veggie libel laws, making it illegal to criticize food from factories; Kennedy was personally targeted and vilified.

A decade later, in 2001, a US court ruled pig factories were no different from other factories that dumped waste and the US Environment Protection Agency (epa) was asked to set standards. But then came the mother of all loopholes—or rather, why it should not surprise us Smithfield is at the centre of today’s hog-wash. The epa provisions mandated a company had to get rid of its waste, but only if the waste belonged to it. But in the integrated food business, giants like Smithfield own only the pig and its feed, not the waste. The contracted farmers who keep the Smithfield pigs own a mortgage on the hog-house and keep the manure. epa also did not require meat factories to monitor groundwater and decreed their tonnes of toxic waste were not subject to the country’s Clean Water Act.

It is the scale of this business and its power which should worry us. Smithfield slaughtered some 26 million pigs and had a turnover of US$ 11.4 billion in 2006. It also made a profit of over US$ 500 million that year and expanded madly across the world. Just last week, The New York Times published a devastating tale of how the same company was using subsidies and public diplomacy to take over family pig farms in Romania and Poland.

When avian flu first hit the world, some made the same connection—intensive poultry factories were linked to the flu the world caught. But this was an equally inconvenient truth. It was easier to blame wild birds with no defenders in agribusiness, than birds produced in poultry factory farms.

The current H1N1 strain is high on the evolutionary ladder. In 1998, when there was an outbreak of swine flu in North Carolina, it was a triple hybrid— containing gene segments from bird, human and swine—and this spread across the pig herds of the integrated world. Now it has mutated further. It is believed, sometime in March, a the common flu virus infecting a human being got mixed with the hybrid, creating an altogether new human-animal virus. This one, many believe, is a mild version; just wait as it evolves.

If not chicken, pigs will have their revenge. And the real pandemic will remain untreated, as usual.

— Sunita Narain