Got Swine Flu? Thank a Swine Factory

Even when the Washington Post gets around to placing the blame for the H1N1 Flu pandemic squarely where it belongs — on industrial agriculture — it does so obliquely, and with the mindset created by the industry’s flacks that prevents us from facing its increasingly dire consequences.

The article was not headlined, as it should have been, “If You Have Swine Flu, Thank a Swine Factory.” Instead, it sidles toward the reality: “Back where virus started, new scrutiny of pig farming.” And hear the music playing as the piece (by David Brown, datelined Tipton Iowa) begins: “It may be crowded and carpeted in manure, but the long, white building beside State Route 38 is one of the most pathogen-free homes a pig could have.”

This is akin to saying that a concentration camp is one of the most secure places an (ethnic group of your choice) could live. Sort of beside the point. And to call it pathogen free, in an article that identifies it as the source of H1N1 influenza, is more than a little oxymoronic. Especially when you know that pig factories are also responsible for another near-pandemic of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) infections — staph infections, often called flesh-eating bacteria, that cannot be stopped with any available medicine.

The writer of this piece has drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid of the ag industry, for he writes blithely that the miserable, crowded, force-fed and always half-sick denizens of this “home,” though they “never know the feel of grass, mud or sunshine,” should be grateful because they are also free of many of the infections that slow the growth and occasionally end the lives of their outdoor cousins.”

Pity the pig living in its natural habitat, eating the vegetation that it has evolved to eat, using its specialized snout to dig for the roots it loves,  breathing fresh air and exercising, knowing the feel of grass and sunshine. Animals in such circumstances rarely if ever experience illness; it is when they are crowded into pens, and fed what humans find to be cheap and easy, that they get sick.

The writer has, of course, done his due diligence: he has gone to an actual pig factory to see for himself and reports what he sees with brutal honesty. “We’re producing the most efficient animal, one that is healthy every day,” he quotes the factory manager (whom he for some reason refers to as a “farmer”) as saying. The statement is false on both counts: pastured pigs gain more weight on less feed more quickly than concentration-camp pigs; and to call them healthy because they are free of parasites and some diseases is like calling a terminal cancer patient “otherwise healthy.”

The brutal reality, that this article and the many others like it dance around, is that factory farms — which are factories, not farms — are enormous petri dishes that offer ideal conditions for the mutation of influenza viruses into deadly and contagious new varieties, and for the mutation of bacteria into deadly and drug-resistant new forms. As long as we, with the help of the industry and its enraptured journalists, continue to sugar-coat this reality we will not even consider what must be done to make food and food production safe and sustainable.

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