Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine Flu: Smithfield Foods' statement vs. the ugly truth (with photos)

American multinational CAFO Smithfield Foods this Sunday denied responsibility for the outbreak in Veracruz, Mexico, of swine flu, now an international public health emergency and currently classified as a Level 4 Pandemic ( sustained human-to-human transmission). Smithfield also states it is cooperating with government officials in the investigation:

Based on available recent information, Smithfield has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico. The company also noted that its joint ventures in Mexico routinely administer influenza virus vaccination to their swine herds and conduct monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza.

The National Pork Producers Council reported today that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "people cannot get the hybrid influenza from eating pork or pork products" and "preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs."

However, Smithfield's statement fails to mention that countless residents of La Gloria were routinely and relentlessly exposed to airborne droplets of pig feces and decayed tissue for an undetermined number of years, thanks to toxic and sick-making clouds blowing outward from Granja Carrol's so-called "oxidation ponds"--or pig sewage lagoons. And that they have long complained of respiratory illnesses, well before their children started dying in March.

Nor does the company's statement explain that contracting the H1N1 influenza virus does NOT necessarily require that one "have contact with hogs"; in fact, the flu virus is spread via tiny droplets of infected matter--feces, body fluids--that reach the mucous membranes and lungs when someone touches a contaminated surface before rubbing his eyes, for example, or when he unwittingly inhales the airborne, virus-containing waste droplets floating around his town courtesy of a nearby pig or poultry CAFO.

And there's something else--several things, actually--that Smithfield Foods left off its website: photographs of the Granjas Carrol plant itself. The photos are published on the news website Enlace Veracruz 212 (Veracruz Connection) - Analytical and Investigative Journalism. It must be said, these writer(s) and photographer(s) are very brave journalists indeed--for reasons both obvious and not-so-obvious: according to the accompanying article, speaking out against the Granjas Carrol operation has, disturbingly but not unsurprisingly, led to various residents being intimidated, threatened, and arrested by certain officials tasked with protecting the company's financial interests. (These images are, in a word, grisly. You've been warned.)

The infamous oxidation ponds, or pig-waste lagoons, filled with concentrated excrement, blood, and the rotting bodies of dead pigs; note the broken pipe.

Rotting pig carcass floating in the oxidation pond/pig-waste lagoon

Dead pigs, stacked on a wheeled cart and left out in the heat. It is not clear if these animals' bodies were destined for processing or disposal.

More dead pigs left out to rot; scavenger animals got hold of these carcasses. As the Enlace Veracruz writer notes, "This is the how Granjas Carrol cares for its dead."

So, readers, are you horrified yet? And are you, too, wondering where on Earth the American mainstream media are?

Also at Cogitamus.

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 PandemicFlu.gov, 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

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cogitamus ergo ridemus: Eddie Izzard on Techno-joy and computers ending the world

Because thinking people need to laugh, and Eddie Izzard is a thinking person's laughmaker. (I'd recommend using headphones if the innocent or easily-offended lurk nearby, ahem.)

Bon Weekend, everyone!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Frank: a Very Special History Repeats Itself Edition

In 1990, Frank Zappa was guest-host for a program called Focus, produced and aired by the long-since-shuttered FNN. In the clips below, he interviews Emmy-award-winning journalist and current NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr, who discusses, among other things, his decision (in the 1970's) to publish the Pike Committee report--which detailed the CIA and FBI's various and many illegal activities at home and abroad--as well as his subsequent "resignation" from his then-employer, CBS (shades of Rathergate?!)

A bit of context, via Wikipedia:
Schorr attracted the anger of the Nixon White House. In 1971, after a dispute with White House aides, Schorr's friends, neighbors, and co-workers were questioned by the FBI about his habits. They were told that Schorr was under consideration for a high-level position in the environmental area. Schorr knew nothing about it. Later, during the Watergate hearings, it was revealed that Nixon aides had drawn up what became known as Nixon's Enemies List, and Daniel Schorr was on that list. Famously, Schorr read the list aloud on live TV, surprised to be reading his own name in that context. Schorr won Emmys for news reporting in 1972, 1973, and 1974.

Schorr provoked intense controversy in 1976 when he received and made public the contents of the secret Pike Committee report on illegal CIA and FBI activities. Called to testify before Congress, he refused to identify his source on First Amendment grounds, risking imprisonment. This did not mollify CBS executives, and Schorr ultimately resigned from his position at CBS in September 1976.

On May 14, 2006, on NPR's Weekend Edition, Schorr mentioned a meeting at the White House that took place with colleague A. M. Rosenthal and president Gerald Ford. Ford mentioned that the Rockefeller Commission had access to various CIA documents, including those referring to political assassinations. Although scolded at first for his television report by former CIA director Richard Helms, Schorr was vindicated by the text of the Pike Committee, which he obtained from an undisclosed source and leaked to The Village Voice.
I was cheered--though completely unsurprised--to learn that Schorr and Zappa were friends:
Though by no means a fan of rock music, Schorr became friends with composer Frank Zappa after the latter contacted him, asking for help with a voter-registration drive. Schorr made an appearance with Zappa on February 10, 1988, where he sang "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Summertime". Schorr delivered the eulogy on NPR after Zappa's untimely death on December 4, 1993; he professed not to understand Zappa's lengthy discourses on music theory, but he found a kindred spirit—a serious man with a commitment to free speech.
A commenter at YouTube notes: I think when Frank died the world's intelligence level must have dropped by 80%.

Thankfully, we still have Frank Zappa's astounding body of work, and it continues to inspire, amuse, provoke, and, yes, demand. "Pay attention!" it says. "Teach yourself; fight for your ideals; stop accepting mediocrity."

We're trying, Frank. We really are.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Best HuffPo Headline EVER

That screeching you hear is the sound of a thousand feet stomping on the brakes as some of us head down the street toward that billboard and suddenly notice a sea of oddly stationary cars and giddy, wide-eyed pedestrians located directly in front of us.

If we absolutely must have shrinkage, well, bend it like Beckham, I say.

(The actual story about sales of men's undies being an economic indicator is here.)