More on Smithfield: "Will it take a pandemic to get our attention?"

Thursday, April 30, 2009

There's been a great deal of discussion recently about the swine flu, of course. There's also been discussion, but to a far lesser extent, about the possible role of a Mexican subsidiary of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods in the disease's outbreak. The issue even came up at the Virginia Democratic governors' debate last night, with the candidates being asked if they'd taken money from Smithfield (note: Creigh Deeds has taken $2,250, Brian Moran has taken $2,000, and Terry McAuliffe has taken none).

Meanwhile, the pork industry is not exactly "hog wild" over the possible link between swine flu and one of its leading companies.
As more cases of the new influenza emerged on Tuesday, deepening worries about a possible pandemic, several nations slammed their borders shut to pork from the United States and Mexico. Wall Street analysts predicted a sharp decline of pork sales in grocery stores, and some consumers began steering clear of pork chops.


“Swine flu is a misnomer,” said C. Larry Pope, the chief executive of Smithfield Foods, who said he feared panic among consumers. “They need to be concerned about influenza, but not eating pork.”

Researchers say that based on its genetic structure, the new virus is without question a type of swine influenza, derived originally from a strain that lived in pigs. But the experts are still sorting out how long ago it infected pigs and how much it might have mutated when it jumped to humans.
Pork producers have even called for renaming the disease to something more innocuous, but the World Health Organization disagrees. And, of course, you've got to take the pork industry's denials with a pillar of salt, considering that they have billions of dollars worth of reasons to distract and deflect from them being the original source. The fact is, as a friend of mine who knows a lot more about this than I do wrote, "Multiple scientific studies show that hogs are the perfect incubating vessel for pandemic flus, especially since their lungs are capable of harboring both human and avian flu viruses. This is how the new virus was most likely created."

Regardless of what the cause of this particular swine flu outbreak might happen to be, the fact is that Smithfield Foods - and factory farming more broadly - is bad news on a number of fronts. It's bad for the environment (sewage lagoons, contamination of waterways), it's bad for humans (worker mistreatment and injuries, exploitation of undocumented immigrants, union busting, possible swine flu), it's bad for animals (nasty living conditions, to put it mildly), it's just plain bad. For instance, see this Human Rights Watch report on Smithfield Foods, which sounds like something out of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle":
The line is so fast there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull and you have to cut harder. That's when it really starts to hurt, and that's when you cut yourself. - Smithfield Foods meatpacking line worker, Red Springs, North Carolina, December 2003.
Lovely, eh? Well, if those are the conditions in the United States, just imagine what things are like in Mexico. The imagination reels.

Meanwhile, I received an email from a reader who asked an important question: "will it take a pandemic to get our attention that factory farming cannot come to a good end?" The person added, "Can we get the environmentalists, the animal rights advocates, the human health advocates, the sustainable agriculture activists and the WHO and CDC (working on the H1N1 virus) to once and for all bring awareness to the importance of putting an end to factory farming a la Smithfield?"

I dunno, call me cynical, but something tells me that the Secretary of Agriculture - whoever that person happens to be - will be more willing to consider the "concerns" of a powerful, multi-billion-dollar industry, however heinous that industry might be, than the issues raised by concerned citizens like the one I just quoted. Please, Secretary Vilsack, prove me wrong!

UPDATE: At, "Can we all agree that enormous ponds of untreated pig shit constitute a public health threat?" She also points out:
When Smithfield says that you can't get flu from eating pork, and that they don't know of any sick pigs or plant workers, even if they aren't lying, it's beside the point. They moved to Mexico specifically to get away with things they couldn't get away with in the US, to do to Mexican communities things they couldn't do to communities in the United States.