This cheap little piggie went to the market and gave everyone swine flu?

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While US public attention follows the latest reports of swine flu outbreaks  and school closings, the search for the origination of the current strain has focused on the small town of La Gloria in Vera Cruz. A four-year-old boy there is being described as the first official case of the the 2009 H1N1 strain, apparently a truly odd mash-up of avian, human, and pig influenza components. What has attracted little mainstream media attention, though it is being well-covered by ecology sites like Grist, is the possibility that we may owe this latest influenza outbreak—and its potential for a devastating global outbreak of this flu strain—to our taste for large-scale factory farming.

La Gloria residents live within the shadow of a massive pig farming operation run by a Mexican subsidiary of U.S. pork behemoth Smithfield Foods. Those residents, who experienced an micro-demic in February that claimed the lives of three toddlers, are certain the disease jumped from pigs to human because of their proximity and exposure to this facility and the tons of biosolid waste it throws off each year.

According to the site Biosurveillance: "Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll [Smithfield Food subsidiary], polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to 'flu.' " Really?

Nearly a million hogs a year in large confinement buildings are raised and slaughtered near La Gloria. Smithfield Foods says it has "found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in the company's swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico." Could it possibly be merely an odd coincidence that the swine flu originated near this factory farm? That will be a question we can hope is intensely scrutinized by public health, food safety, and ag officials in both the US of A and the US of M.

Factory farming is defended, despite the high toll it takes on animals and on land and water resources (and let's not neglect its olfactory impact, criminy!), as a cheap and safe means of food production. No one is arguing that a world free of large-scale hog containment facilities would be any safer from any single pandemic. The question is are these facilities adding to the likelihood of more novel strains of the deadly diseases homo sapiens have had to confront since we the birth of agri-culture? Are we going to face more lethal outbreaks because of them? Are the dreadful economic and human costs of such novel outbreaks being properly accounted for by the purportedly cheap pork we bring to market? Not by a long shot is my guess.