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May 6, 2009

Potential cause of swine flu – our food chain.

Pigs. Lovely things. But when you have too many of them at a single place, it could be slightly problematic. Anyone who has been to a pig farm or a passed by a slaughter house would know this. But what does this have to do with Swine Flu? Quite a lot, if one  goes by newspapers and reports from labs such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC).



The guardian carried a news article [1,2] that highlighted how industrialized farming consistently looks at optimizing food produce with any and whatever means possible. The means could include large scale operations that generate coresspondingly large amounts of waste, and complicate management of stock. Excerpts related to the scale of operations at one of the world’s largest pig “manufacturing” company:

It operates on a grand scale. The volume of its pig waste is extravagant. But just as RBS did not alone cause the financial crisis but merely conformed to the latest banking type, so it is the very nature of today’s globalised meat industry that is at the heart of this emerging swine flu pandemic. The factory unit near La Gloria fattens nearly a million pigs a year.

Intensive factories of densely packed hogs, like those of the rest of the large-scale industry, produce vast lagoons of foul-smelling discharges. In many of the areas where it has sited its factory farms or slaughtering and processing complexes, activists and locals have campaigned against it, accusing it of environmental pollution, labour rights abuses and in some places operating without proper permits.

If you had a farm with about 50-60 livestock, one could estimate how they are behaving, and this can give an important clue to their well-being. In practice animals behave oddly when they are sick, and growers of livestock learn how to understand such behavior. To take blood samples and measure the disease in each animal is at best difficult, and at worst impossible. When you talk about lakhs of animals at a single location, being grown for the sole purpose of being killed and consumed, things can get a little haywire. It is practically not possible to understand their behavior. As for regular blood tests and similar – well that will be too expensive, so tests will be conducted on samples. Then there is also the use of anti-biotics and steroids. Excerpt form the Guardian:

Health experts have warned for years about the danger of intensive livestock farming creating new and rampant human disease. If these new viruses are the toxic debt of the food system, the genetically improved pig is its highly engineered and artificial derivative. Pumped up like a bodybuilder, dependent on antibiotics and vaccines to keep it going, it has disproportionately large back legs to meet a market that likes hams more than shoulder of pork; it has tiny ears and no tail to limit the scars from the aggressive behaviour distressed conditions produce; and it is bred without hair for ease of slaughter. When herds of 5,000 of these genetically identical modern animals catch flu, it rips through them.

At CDC the head of virology had completed the genetic fingerprinting of the swine flu and was able to say that it has arisen from a strain first identified on industrial pig units in North Carolina in the late 1990s. ….. “North Carolina has the densest pig population in North America and boasts more than twice as many corporate swine mega-factories as any other state. With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.

Novel human disease is the toxic debt of today’s industrial livestock farming. The influenza virus has eight genetic segments. If two different types of flu infect the same cell at the same time, the genes from both viruses mix, swapping segments to form totally new hybrids.


The 1918 flu pandemic was an H1N1 strain and was a kind of bird flu new to humans so they had no immunity to it. It killed at least 50 million people as it raged around the world in less than a year. The 1918 H1N1 strain passed from humans to pigs, and became the dominant form of flu among pigs, albeit one that evolved into a fairly mild strain.

But then in 1998 there was an explosive new outbreak of swine flu in a factory farm in North Carolina that made thousands of pigs ill. The virus had evolved into a triple hybrid that had never been seen before, containing gene segments from bird, human and swine flu. It had found the ideal breeding ground. Pigs, whose immune systems were suppressed by the stress of crowding and fast feeding, and kept confined indoors, were perfect disease incubators for flu whose preferred method of transmission is virus-infected aerosol droplets, expelled by the million in the hog’s famous barking cough. Thanks to the modern practice of transporting live animals, the new virus spread rapidly through pig herds around the country.

Despite this information, it is the common consumers who will continue to use such products:

But instead of addressing these wider issues, the response to the flu pandemic in terms of food production is “carry on as normal”. Urged to spend our way out of ecological recession, we are exhorted to keep eating pork products. Keen to protect the economic interests of its meat industry, the US government took to calling this swine flu “H1N1 flu” a couple of days ago, in order not to put people off their chops. The World Health Organisation, which depends on the US for a large part of its budget and has been bullied by it before, has now followed suit, rebranding the flu influenza A (H1N1). But simply saying “as you were” is no more an adequate response to the cause of this current crisis than it is to the banking collapse. If we carry on as before, the pigs may yet have their revenge. And if not the pigs, the chickens.

Food production has become more about economics than about good food. No matter what the management tells us, if a company has to generate tons of toxic waste and pollute the surroundings, such food is of dubious distinction. Livestock manufaturers, some of the large ones have had to pay large fines for polluting surrounding areas. I for one believe that non-Vegeterian food has become high-risk . It is also very horrible treatement of animals. This condition is not only of pigs, it is true about beef  (Mad cow disease: 1, 2, 3, 4), chicken (Bird flu: 1, 2, 3) and all forms of industrialized non-veg food [1, 2, 3]. Mass farming of animals combines several ills like anti-biotic overuse, bad treatment of animals, poor feed to livestock, and profit-maximizing mentality. These techniques become a breeding ground for genetic mutation of multi-drug resistant diseaes like MRSA [1, 2]. There is a risk of something similar happening in agriculture through the use of pesticides and chemicals in farms. But thankfully for the vegeterians, plants are much more sensitive than animals. Plants do not survive the use of more than milder doses of chemicals. Hence, it is not easy to alter plants and disease mutations in plants is yet unknown. However, Genetic engineering in agriculture is a big concern [1, 2, 3]. Greed and errors in livestock farming has already given us Avian and Swine flu. Will we spoil our agriculture as well?



  1. ui Read up on something else left by the Bush Administration still going on in Austin, TX. xfg
    They left a weapon for the police department in Austin, TX to torture and violate people’s rights without anyone knowing. Read more about it at fgh

    Comment by notscarednew — May 6, 2009 @ 09:29

  2. Oh , so swine flu has been around since 3 decades, and has been renamed as H1N1 just to save their backs by US govt.Interesting !!!Better eat fresh veggies which are far inexpensive..atleast in India.

    Comment by Jyostna — May 6, 2009 @ 10:25

  3. Dear, I do not think it is just about US. Maybe even some other countries would have done the same thing if a large source of their income were to be threatened.

    Comment by neosurya — May 13, 2009 @ 23:29

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