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April 27, 2009

A Possible Connection: Swine Flu and Factory Farms

The world is on high alert because of an outbreak of swine flu in Mexico that has already claimed about 150 lives, and that is now spreading in pockets across the globe, including in the United States. Mexican officials say they've traced the origin of the H1N1 strain to the southeastern state of Veracruz, the site of major pig farms. 

We at The HSUS have done much thinking about the potential for such pandemics, partly because a senior member of our staff has studied this issue as thoroughly as anyone in the nation. Dr. Michael Greger, The HSUS's director of public health and animal agriculture and author of "Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching," is a world-renowned expert on the phenomenon of diseases jumping from animals to people and how our modern uses of animals have greater potential to trigger pandemics. He’s got observations about the current crisis, below, that should be mandatory reading for policy makers across the nation.


In the last few decades, dozens of new human diseases have emerged and re-emerged as a direct consequence of how we mistreat animals. The butchering of chimps in the African bushmeat trade led to the emergence of HIV, live animal markets in Asia led to the emergence of SARS, and the exotic pet trade led to the appearance of monkeypox in Wisconsin. The greatest change in our relationship with animals, however, has been the way billions are now raised for food around the world.

Pigs in pen
© USDA

Factory farming practices have directly led to the emergence of deadly human pathogens including mad cow disease, Strep suis, Nipah virus, multi-drug resistant foodborne bacteria, and highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza. Although AIDS has killed 25 million people, the reason there is so much concern about influenza is that it is the only known pathogen capable of infecting literally billions of people in a matter of months.

With international attention now focused on the emerging H1N1 swine flu virus, it is important to reflect on how such viruses arise.

The first recorded emergence of a swine flu virus like the one we now face, incorporating both human and avian genes, was on a factory farm in North Carolina in 1998. When thousands of animals are crowded into filthy, football field-sized sheds to lie beak to beak or snout to snout atop their own waste, it can be a breeding ground for disease.

Though some within the meat industry have made commitments and acted to move away from some of the worst intensive confinement practices, others have instead sought to overturn laws meant to improve animal health. Last year, for example, the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute brought a lawsuit to overturn a California law that would exclude pigs too sick or crippled even to walk from the human food supply, forcing producers to take better care of these animals.

A study of downed pigs published in 2008 in Livestock Science found that non-ambulatory pigs were significantly more likely to test positive for swine flu compared with pigs who could walk. More than half of the downed pigs were found to be actively viremic with swine flu virus, meaning that the virus was coursing through their bloodstream—53.8 percent were actively infected with an H1N1 virus and 51.9 percent with H3N2.

The meat industry trade groups argued, however, that it was okay to slaughter and process downed pigs for human consumption because swine flu wasn’t a threat. Now that the World Health Organization has declared swine flu a public health emergency, maybe industry will stop trying to undermine laws meant to protect animals and the public, and instead reduce the overcrowding and stress that helped lead to the emergence of such diseases in the first place.

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