With all the talk of swine flu (H1N1) and the potential for a pandemic outbreak, I am trying to better understand the state of hog and pig farms in the U.S., as well as how changes in such operations might be playing into today’s swine flu scare. In particular, what role are concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) playing, either directly or indirectly.
Here are some interesting highlights from recent press releases, news articles, and blog posts that give you a clear sense of where the public debate is heading.
The Guardian: In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.
National Pork Board: Animals are housed in temperature-controlled facilities that are scientifically designed to ensure the health and safety of the herd. Modern pork production practices keep the animals clean, safe and protect the animals from predators, disease and extreme weather.
The Green Fork: Here’s the connection: if a commercial flight is a prime breeding ground for airborne infectious disease, consider the digs of modern hogs. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, bring together tens of thousands of animals in quarters that make a sold-out 747 look spacious.
Pork.org (National Pork Board web site): Swine Flu or North American Flu? [Clearly, it is in the pork industry’s best interest to not let this potential pandemic influenza outbreak be tied around pork’s neck, which is why they are trying to get the name changed. Assuming it turns out not to be due to pork or (importantly) CAFOs, I would tend to agree, but it seems too late to change things.]
The Independent: Egypt began slaughtering the roughly 300,000 pigs in the country Wednesday as a precautionary measure against the spread of swine flu even though no cases have been reported here yet, the Health Ministry said. [For perspective, the U.S. has 65 million pigs, so Egypt’s pig population would easily fit within a single CAFO “farm”.]
UPDATE: Adding Nature Network: Priming the Pump of a Swine Flu Pandemic – In a region of only 3,000 people it’s estimated that 60% of the population fell ill with swine flu symptoms as early as February of this year. As the Guardian newspaper reported yesterday [see above], the H1N1 virus was confirmed in this area when a sample from a four-year old boy was sent for analysis earlier this month. As of now, this is the earliest confirmed case of swine flu in the world. What is also significant about the location is that the area around La Gloria is home to one of the largest industrial pig farms in all of Mexico.
UPDATE: Adding Beyond Green: This intriguing notice posted to the International Society for Infectious Diseases by Columbia University researchers suggests that the current swine flu outbreak may be a “reassortment” (i.e. rearrangement) of existing swine flu viruses and not a swine, avian, and human influenza combo.
Clearly, there is a lot at stake, which is at least partially explains why there is so much jockeying for position on who is to blame, what the pandemic should be called, and so on. Here are a few hog and pig facts from the USDA to keep in mind as each of us draws our own conclusions (from Ag Census data):
- As of June 1, 2008, there were 66,768,000 hogs and pigs in the U.S., 19,400,000 of which were found in Iowa (29%) and 10,100,000 in North Carolina (15%). [In 1984, there were 54,072 hogs and pigs on U.S. farms, indicating a 123 percent increase over the last .]
- In 2008, there were 73,150 hog operations in the U.S. Places with 2,000 or more head accounted for 85.1 percent of the inventory. [In 1984, there were around 420,000 hog operations, which shows a decline of over 80 percent.]
What stands out to me is a 123% increase in the number hogs and pigs, living on 80% fewer farms, since 1984, along with increasing food safety issues, whether MRSA, swine flu or otherwise. There is also the fact that 70 percent of all antibiotics are applied to livestock to help them survive living in concentrated operations. The deck appears to be stacked against industry on this one, but we all know that industry won’t give up without a good fight.
Bottom line for me is that we must identify hazardous links between industrial food and food safety, and correct all problems that jeopardize the health of people and the sustainability of our environment.