May 1, 2009

That Infectious Piggy Thingy

One cannot be a responsible (poorly read) blogger and not comment on the whole Swine... I mean, H1N1 flu outbreak. Nearly 300 schools have been closed in the U.S. There have been a handful of deaths. Millions are in a panic -- whether they should be, I don't know. Seems like a serious situation, but panic can just make things worse.

On some of the food blogs last week, reports surfaced that the outbreak may have started at an industrial pig farm in Mexico half-owned by Smithfield, famed antagonist of the famous Rolling Stone article a few years ago about stinky, filthy, disease-causing industrial pig farms in North Carolina.

The blog reports focused on articles in Mexican newspapers from towns near the pig CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) that were pinning the blame for the outbreak, or at the very least some illnesses, on the CAFO, but without providing any real evidence to support it. Nevertheless, those blog reports sparked a flurry of activity on other food and politics blogs, all pointedly faulting this CAFO for the current Swine... H1N1 flu outbreak.

It's easy to believe that this could be the case. In fact, Dr. Michael Greger from the U.S. Humane Society makes a very a good case that a pig CAFO is the likely origin of this particular flu.

Factory farming and long-distance live animal transport apparently led to the emergence of the ancestors of the current swine flu threat.

This analysis, first released by Columbia University’s Center for Computation Biology, has now been reportedly confirmed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and virologist Ruben Donis, chief of the molecular virology and vaccines branch at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Robert Webster, the director of the U.S. Collaborating Center of the World Health Organization, and considered the "godfather of flu research,"[1] is reported as saying "The triple reassortant in pigs [first discovered in the U.S. in 1998] seems to be the precursor."

This is a must-read column, well-supported by reputable references, often from the top peer-reviewed science journals, for anybody who wants to learn just one very good reason for why CAFOs are bad, bad, bad.

That said, it really does nobody any good to spread the idea -- minus any good evidence -- that this particular CAFO in Mexico was reponsible for this particular outbreak. Heck, as the Columbia Journalism Review reported... far, authorities have yet to find an infected pig in Mexico, let alone at the Granjas Carroll farm. None of the pig farm’s workers appears to be sick, either.

On Grist, where the CAFO-Swi... H1N1 flu connection was first made, Merritt Clifton does a good job of explaining why, even with the best of intentions, its best not to go beyond what the available evidence supports.

Until the medical evidence is in, we just don’t know. And focusing prematurely on the presumed factory-farm connection could prove a dangerous distraction from identifying and responding to the actual source of a potential pandemic.


Nate said...

I'm right there with you on this. It's so tempting to leap up onto the soapbox and wave around a pitchfork (preferably a burning one) and shout about how this "OMFG WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE" epidemic was caused by factory farming. And while factory farming is really icky on many levels, I'd prefer to get the actual facts before breaking out the flaming farm implements.

Thanks for the add over on Foodbuzz, you have a great blog over here. Added you to my blogroll too.

Fillippelli the (Wannabe) Cook said...

Thanks. I appreciate it.

I wish I were a little more tech/blog savvy so I could drive more traffic to it, but I barely find the time to keep this little diversion up to date, yet alone how to use it more effectively! :D

Jacoba said...

Stick it on facebook! I look you up and send it to my friends from there!

Shades of George Orwell with this Animal Farm - this virus, isn't it?