Thursday, April 30, 2009

Don't panic, everyone; but is this the pay-off for treatment of pigs?

AS the government and media advise us not to panic over swine 'flu, and the UN warns of a pandemic, some of us are wondering whether we've been told everything. Questions are being asked about things we'd normally feel better if we did not know - like how our food is produced. In connection with this unappetising information we start to hear not about Farmer Giles or his Mexican equivalent, but big corporations with which we are unfamiliar. Just as firms often spend millions on advertising to get their names into the papers, they sometimes employ lawyers to keep their names out of it. But truth will out..

Writing in the Guardian,on Tuesday, British Green Euro-MP Caroline Lucas notes that Dr.Michael Greger, a US authority on public health and humane farming has pointed out, this is not the first time the hybrid virus has been uncovered. "The first was found in a North Carolina industrial pig farm in 1998, and within a year it had spread across the United States".

"Dr Greger has highlighted how some experts blamed the emergence of the original 1998 virus on intensive farming practices in the US, where pigs and poultry are raised in extremely cramped conditions, in adjacent sheds – and tended to by the same staff.

"North Carolina has the densest pig population in North America, with around twice as many swine mega-factories as any other state. In 1998, North Carolina's pig population had hit ten million, up from two million just six years before. Yet the number of hog farms was decreasing, with more and more animals being crammed into fewer and fewer farms. Since the primary route of swine flu transmission is thought to be the same as human flu, the increased potential for the spread of disease in such conditions is clear.

"More research is urgently needed to explore the potential link between industrialised animal farming, and the spread of disease. Some elements of the Mexican media are already pointing to the potential role of intensive pig farming in Mexico, which has grown substantially in recent years, with some giant operations raising tens of thousands of pigs at a time.

"Since news of the epidemic broke, reports in Mexico City daily La Jornada and Vera Cruz-based paper La Marcha have detailed how a number of community residents in the affected areas have expressed concerns over the operations of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork packer and hog producer. According to these reports, in Veracruz – where the outbreak originated, a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carrol raises 950,000 hogs per year in intensive conditions.

"Smithfield has released a statement denying any link between the outbreak and Granjas Carrol's operations in Mexico. It said the company routinely administers influenza virus vaccinations to its herds and conducts monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza. It said it had found no clinical signs or symptoms of swine influenza on its farms".

Swine flu: is intensive pig farming to blame?, Caroline Lucas, Guardian April 28.

If you'd asked me last week whether I'd heard of Smithfield, I would have said "of course", thinking you meant the meat market by the City of London. I'd never heard of the big US corporation which has taken this reassuringly traditional name. But now I'm learning it operates in more than one country, and supplies much of the pork meat we receive in Britain. Some people have been watching it for some time. A friend passes me an article from The Ecologist, December 1, 2003:

"We ignored the ‘no entry’ sign at a recently opened Smithfield pig factory, clambered over wire barriers and wrenched open the ventilation shaft of one of three vast concrete and corrugated iron sheds. Inside, 5,000 squealing pigs were crammed into strawless compartments. Outside, effluent from cement cesspits, though now frozen, had over-flowed and sent a small stream of brown stinking liquid into the lake below. In a large plastic bin (empty the previous night) we found 20 dead pigs. Astonishingly, it seems that the entire operation is illegal.

Who are Smithfield Foods?

"When Robert Kennedy Jr wrote ‘pig factory farms are more dangerous for our lifestyle and democracy than Osama bin Laden and global terrorism’ he was fined $128,000. Why would he make such an allegation? Because of the growth of factory farming, Iowa has lost 45,000 independent pig farmers in recent years. Joe Luter told The Washington Post that Smithfield will turn ‘Poland into the Iowa of Europe’.

"A spill from one pig lagoon killed a billion fish in North Carolina’s Neuse River in 1995. Bulldozers had to be used to plough the dead fish clear. Today 100 million fish die in the river every year. The Virginia-based firm Smithfield Foods is one of a handful of multinationals that are transforming global meat production from a traditional farm enterprise to a factory-style industrial activity. It is the largest pork producer in the world, controlling almost 30 per cent of the US pork market. The Smithfield style of industrial pork production is a major source of air pollution and probably the largest cause of water pollution in the US.

"Smithfield and its fellow industrial pork producers have driven tens of thousands of family farmers off the land, shattered rural communities, poisoned thousands of miles of US waterways, killed billions of fish, put thousands of fishermen out of work, sickened rural residents and treated hundreds of millions of farm animals with unspeakable and unnecessary cruelty. In 1999 Smithfield began buying slaughterhouses and state farms in Poland. On 22 July this year the firm’s vice president promised Poland’s Senate agricultural committee that Smithfield will ‘modernise’ Polish agriculture and bring prosperity and jobs to rural communities.

"For 20 years Smithfield and its allies have made identical promises to the people of the rural US state of North Carolina. The North Carolinan Senate subsequently passed legislation to make it much easier for Smithfield to do business in the state. With encouragement from these politicians, Smithfield built the largest slaughterhouse in the world in Bladen County. The plant butchers 30,000 pigs each day and has triggered a boom in factory-style production of pig meat in North Carolina.

"Factory farms Smithfield used to be a simple meat packer with no experience of owning a pig farm at all. Its CEO Joe Luter began buying up farms so that the company could control all aspects of pork production – ‘from piglets to pork chops’. Luter describes himself as ‘a tough man in a tough business’, but surprisingly doesn’t live near one of his pig farms. Instead, his home is a $17m Park Avenue mansion in New York. He is known for a ruthless approach to business that maximises profits by industrialising agriculture and eliminating both animal husbandry and the family farm".

Two articles on Smithfield:

It may be argued that these are Green sources, and bound to be biased. Maybe, though if there is another side to the story, or anything they have said is not true, I should think Smithfield and the rest of the pigmeat industry would not be lacking resources to answer it. There have been a stream of comments answering Caroline Lucas, but they seem short on facts or arguments, other than asserting that small-scale farming in poor countries is more likely (contrary to the evidence) to cause new diseases; and sneering that Caroline Lucas is a "Luddite". Since the MEP has only said the links ought to be investigated, I wonder what they are worried about?

I expect that if they had been writing in the 19th century they would have been telling us what a big improvement the new factories and slums were, and how working people were much better off than when they lived in old cottages. Cholera, or tubercolosis - nothing was proven. As though criticising the down side of anything means you want to go backward.

I'm no hand-knitted muesli and home-grown sandals man myself, and nor am I squeamish enough to give up my bacon or become a vegetarian. But nor am I foolish enough to believe that progress moves inevitably in one direction, or that maximising profit is synonymous with progress.

People used to talk naively of the "conquest of nature", but in the long run we can only work with nature, learning how to turn it to advantage. Treating it with contempt in a rush for private profit brings disasters. Soils destroyed by monoculture and reliance on chemicals,forests cleared ruthlessly without regard for the consequences,animals fed indiscriminately with anti-biotics which breed super viruses, grass-eating animals fed animal matter that gave rise to CJD ...we should have learned the lesson. Be wary. Don't trust anyone who tells you to just accept anything as progress.

My limited experience of farm work did not include working with pigs. But from what I've seen and heard, they are sentient animals, who try to keep relatively clean when they can, and whose flesh has something in common with that of human beings. Without even getting into the territory of "animal rights" or farming ethics,I would venture to suggest keeping pigs in concentration camp conditions is likely to cause problems. And the thing about mistreating nature is that the consequences can fall on us all, innocent or guilty.

there is certainly something to investigate.

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At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in North Carolina and have for the past 25 years. I have seen the rise of the mega farms and I have to say that they are better managed, with better environmental and biosecurity measures than the small "family" farms they replaced. I have not witnessed the "billions" of dead fish nor have I seen any reports of having to bulldoze their corpses aside. Fish kills occur every year and have for many years. They are sometimes associated with swine waste spills but municipal human waste spills are more common and low oxygen conditions due to low water levels and high temperatures are more common still. The "factory" farms in North Carolina are mostly family owned and operated under contract to the larger company. Very few units are actually owned by Smithfield et al, though some are owned by investors. The investors' units are probably not the best neighbors, but individual owners live in the community and their families, at least, have been afforded the opportunity to remain on the farm by modern pig production. By the way, the name Smithfield comes from the company's home base of Smithfield, Virginia. It has nothing (directly at any rate) to do with Smithfield in England as was suggested by one of your quoted sources. I'm not necessarily a big fan of Smithfield Foods, but I'm not willing to print ignorant comments and out right lies to support my point of view. You and your sources don't seem to feel the same ethical compulsion.

At 11:15 PM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

On the other hand the sources I quote do give their names, and if they are tekking "outright lies" that could open them, and the publications in which they are published, not to mention yours truly, up to legal action. Our libel laws here are quite strict
One of the articles is now almost six years old -ample time in which it could have been refuted.
I must admit I am new to this subject,( and I've never been to North Carolina), so having given one side of the story I felt it was only right to give your reply space. But I think we can consider the points you make, without needing to trade accusations of lying.

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