Pig flu infects humans: More evidence against confined feeding operations?
Apr 24th 2009 1:45PM
Updated Dec 4th 2009 11:53AM
I swore off pork raised in large commercial farms after reading Nicholas Kristof's deep evaluation of the use of prophylactic antibiotics in animal feed, and how it's causing an explosion of MRSA, a flesh-eating bacterial infection, in pig farm workers and the people who live nearby those factory farms that raise pigs.
But today's news is even more troubling, as it indicates that resistant "superbugs" are spreading, not just to those whose lives keep them close to the live animals, but people far-removed from swine. The CDC announced that seven people had been diagnosed with a rare form of swine flu, a strain previously only found in those who were in contact with pigs. All those infected were in the Southwestern United States.
Update: Shortly after I posted this, news from Mexico started to emerge that swine flu had come from that country, where at least 100 are now confirmed dead and many hundreds are sick. The flu does not transmit through eating pork (so far as reports have demonstrated), but it is likely the flu initially spread from pig to human through pork farm waste overflow. Now the flu is spreading from human to human; pigs and humans have very similar DNA, so it is not unusual for humans to catch cold from pigs, but it is unusual for swine flu to pass from human to human with no pigs present.
What's worse, the A (H1N1) flu strain is resistant to two older flu drugs, amantadine and rimantadine -- and it has genetic markers from American swine, bird, and human flu strains, and Eurasian swine. To be clear, I don't see this as a current and major risk to the life expectancy of Americans; it's no plague, and CDC officials call it "no cause for alarm." I do, however, see it as cause for alarm; my sirens are flashing because it's an indication of how muddled our food supply has become.
With American pork being raised worldwide, and in many of the poorest nations of the planet (did you know Americans eat pork raised in Haiti?), then often shipped across the ocean for processing and back to the U.S. for eating, it's an almost-certainty that we neither know nor have any way of monitoring how our meat is being cared for, slaughtered, processed, and packaged. There are multiple points of potential contamination (and, while we're at it, the likelihood of environmentally destructive practices, obviously including the overuse of antibiotics and leakage of animal waste into groundwater) and precious little oversight. Not that American practices and oversight are far better than those overseas; in fact, America has some of the most relaxed rules regarding animal husbandry, and certainly an overtaxed food safety system.
The reason these cases were found was due to a new diagnostic test for flu being developed by the Navy and tested at the Mexico/U.S. border (which explains why the cases have been concentrated in the Southwest). The source of the infection is currently a mystery, but my best guess is that world-traveling pig meat only compounds the problem. Where has your bacon been? If you don't know, my best advice is to avoid it and look for local pig farmers whose practices are sustainable and, even more important, visible.