Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu: CAFO Smithfield Foods implicated; must come clean

"Pobre Mexico--tan lejos de Diós; tan circa á los Estados Unidos."
- Mexican saying
Poor Mexico--so far from God; so close to the United States

From the latest edition of Mexico City's La Jornada (I've translated this for you):

Granjas Carrol, protected by authorities*

We are mistaken to believe that authorities responsible for guaranteeing public health and protecting the quality of our natural resources (especially water) have acted to avoid a situation where Granjas Carrol, one of the largest pork processors in the country [Mexico], would negatively affect thousands of people as well as the surrounding environment.

It has been three years since we reported here about the population of Perote, Veracruz, and the hardships they suffer owing to the protection that officials [to whom we] issued requests give to said business. Granjas Carrol was established 15 years ago in Perote because it was an ideal site for pork-processing: a good climate, close proximity to the country's central market, the availability of cheap manual labor, and the ease with which to bring in the agricultural supplies required to process nearly a million pigs per year and maintain 40,000 breeding animals.

Carrol is distinguished for its high consumption of water and the resources that allow the pigs to grow rapidly and to be "healthy". But the waste that originates from this breeder is dangerous: pig excrement, chemical and biological residues, wastewater leaching into in the water we use ourselves. For [the violation of] contaminating [the water and environment] with waste, the United States fined the powerful enterprise Smithfield, majority owner of Carrol. Here, in contrast, everything is allowed, as demonstrated in public reports, last week, by correspondent Andrés Timoteo Morales. Furthermore, he notes how local authorities persecute those who fight for the environment and for health. And the federal authorities?

Another matter that marches at the pace of a turtle: the cleaning-up of beaches. According to the government, they have invested 2 thousand-million pesos into water treatment plants in the main tourist-destination cities of the coast. The secretaries of Health and Environment give priority to the water-quality monitoring--for critical contamination--of some 21 beaches; these are in Jalisco, Campeche, Veracruz, Chiapas and Guerrero. But there is much more going on, according to the association El Poder del Consumador [the Power of the Consumer]. For its part, Greenpeace states that authorities do not inform the public in a timely way, or with proven data, about the water quality issues at the beaches.

A short summary, then; one that doesn't even require reading between the lines: American-owned interests in Mexico--from pork processing giants built alongside villages to water-treatment facilities serving the fancy hotels in coastal cities--are largely unregulated by Mexican officials.

This much is fairly well-known, I think--certainly it's well-known in agribusiness circles.

And my own between-the-lines take, offered herein with a sad shrug of my shoulders that will be well-understood by those who have even a passing familiarity with how business is done, ah, elswhere: the article's headline itself, protected by authorities, which can also be read/translated as protegé of the authorities. *


By now you've all heard about the virulent H1N1 strain of influenza, currently referred to as swine flu, and perhaps you saw Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on television explaining to America that declaring a state of emergency, as she was doing, was just a precaution--a preparatory step, just in case--so that Federal money was made available. Just in case.

Consider this post a case presented, then.

At this point, beyond America's borders, people are somewhere between rightly worried and seriously panicked, and that's just the government officials. The state legislature in Veracruz, widely thought to be the outbreak's epicenter--certainly it is the largest "hot spot"--has already demanded that Granjas Carrol, the Mexican-based subsidiary of giant U.S. pork processor Smithfield Foods, come clean, so to speak:

The state legislature of Veracruz has demanded that the Smithfield subsidiary turn over all documents and environmental certifications on its three massive waste lagoons, but so far, the company has only supplied information on one of them, news reports said today.

As part of normal (!) operations, Granjas Carrol dumps many tons of the hogs' waste into what are essentially sewage lagoons, referred to as lagunas de oxidación (oxidation ponds) and these constantly emit clouds of waste droplets and flies; this in turn befouls the air and water of adjacent La Gloria, the residents of which have long complained about respiratory infections they feel are related to this "pollution of the water and wind".

Then, in March, those respiratory infections began killing residents. Mexican authorities are quietly exhuming the bodies of two La Gloria children believed to have died of this new strain of flu, and officials have declared a cordon sanitario--literally, a sanitary cord; in this case, a public health barricade or quarantine--be placed around the Granjas Carrol and other pork and poultry CAFO's (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in the area, and around bus terminals and airports.

When reading about and reporting on swine flu--a virus--it's important to bear a couple of things in mind.

First, this swine flu virus contains elements of avian, human, and swine influenza. According to the CDC's partner website, avian (bird) flu is transmitted thus (emphasis mine):

Infected birds shed influenza virus in their saliva, nasal secretions, and feces. Susceptible birds become infected when they have contact with contaminated excretions or with surfaces that are contaminated with excretions or secretions. Wild bird avian influenza viruses of low pathogenicity mix with avian viruses in domesticated birds and become highly pathogenic in poultry. Domestic poultry may become infected with avian influenza virus through direct contact with infected waterfowl or other infected poultry or through contact with surfaces (such as dirt or cages) or materials (such as feces or feed) that have been contaminated with droppings that harbor the low-pathogenicity virus.

In other words, low pathogenic avian influenza, which naturally occurs in wild birds, can spread to domestic birds; the relatively mildly-pathogenic flu can become "highly pathogenic" when domestic poultry come in contact with infected birds--or with feed or feces that has been contaminated by the droppings of wild birds. And from there, other animals can contract the virus. For example, during the last major flu outbreak, the H5N1 avian flu virus also infected cats in Europe.

Second, the aforementioned CAFO--Granjas Carrol, subsidiary of Smithfield Foods--is essentially an enormous, concentrated hog farm, and while hog farms are not what anyone would call the cleanest places in the world, one would expect the massive doses of antibiotics CAFO's routinely administer to confined livestock would keep infections at bay, right?

In a word, NO.

Influenza is a virus, not a bacteria, and antibiotics treat, and prevent the spread of, bacterial infections--this is likely why the drugged-up pigs didn't get sick all that time, meanwhile the unprotected residents of nearby La Gloria constantly complained of respiratory infections, most likely bacterial--at first. At some point in the recent past, however, a new mutation of the flu virus, the triple-whammy H1N1 bird-pig-human combo bug, found its way to the infamous clouds of pig waste and flies drifting across--and spreading outward from--the "oxidation ponds" about which Granjas Carrol/Smithfield released only partial information, and about which they are still remaining (mostly) quiet. Even as people have begun dying of those infections in what are, quite frankly, alarming numbers.

Finally, a question: what of the connection between avian flu and this new swine flu, with its human, avian, and swine DNA--is there one?

He [Mexico's Chairman of the Committee on the Environment, Marco Antonio Núñez López] was referring to another CAFO, this one containing poultry, called Granjas de Bachoco, located near the state capital of Xalapa. He said there was an epidemic of avian flu among the chickens being raised there, but that this was being kept quiet so as not to interfere with exports. Influenza-infected chickens raise the risk of cross-infection to pigs in the same area, scientists say.

I'll be keeping a close eye on developments in this story, both in the US and Mexican media, as I've already noticed some interesting and significant differences in what--and how much--they're saying south of the border versus here in the land of Los Norteños.

Further reading:

The article in Grist, by Tom Philpott, that connects Smithfield to the Swine Flu outbreak
The World Health Organization's Swine Flu information center
The Center for Disease Control's Swine Flu information center

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