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Do "factory farms trigger swine flu?

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted May 4, 2009

Did "factory hog farms" trigger Mexico's recent outbreak of "swine flu"?  Not likely. In fact, today's specialized hog and poultry farms actually minimize the potential for virus epidemics—and limit the public's exposure to flu risks.

However, the Humane Society of the United States claims in the wake of the "Mexican" flu outbreak that "factory farms are the fast track to disaster." They essentially are saying that confinement hog farms are the flu problem. If the HSUS is right, America's big confinement farms should be the epicenter of the new virus outbreak. But, they're not.

There is a big Mexican confinement hog farm near the village of one early flu victim. But that farm has neither sick pigs nor sick workers. Smithfield Farms says it has found no clinical signs or symptoms of the flu on its Mexican farms.

Is HSUS just railing against its favorite "factory farming" hate target?

We already knew that the H1N1 flu virus, which has been around for a while, contains genetic material from pigs, poultry, and humans. Flu viruses are biological sluts.  But hog and poultry confinement farms are all "shower-in and shower-out" facilities, with protective clothing, disposable booties and the whole biosafety program. They're off-limits to most visitors. They all prevent contact with wild birds and animals, and minimize the number of people interacting with the critters. The farmers do this to protect their investment in the pigs, but this also protects humanity. 

Virologist Ruben Donis of the Centers for Disease Control thinks the currently-feared H3 flu virus variant started years ago in the American Midwest, where it didn't kill healthy pigs—but it has since made a trip to Asia to pick up new material. He says it could have been brought to Mexico by a pig, or by a person.

Dr. Donis points out that this isn't a "big farm" issue.  An American small farm with 50 pigs typically buys feed and supplies from vendors that go farm-to-farm—and the small farms don't take the big farms' biosafety precautions.

If it comes to that, American farms a hundred years ago raised horses, cattle, pigs, chickens, and sheep in the same farmyard. All those species carry flu viruses—it was flu virus heaven! The kids from down the road came to play. The schoolyards rang with the normal coughs and sneezes—and sometimes the abnormal ones.

Where today would we look for villages that keep poultry, pigs, and people in close interaction?  Perhaps in Mexico? How about in Asia, the source of annual "Asian flu" epidemics that kill 36,000 Americans per year?  The World Health Organization is trying desperately to get Asia's poultry and pigs separated, and raised in confinement—to protect public health worldwide. Ask HSUS why the WHO feels this "factory farm" campaign is so urgent?

Understand that most of humanity's epidemic diseases evolved as viruses shuttled back and forth between humans and their domesticated animals due to their literally living together. We got smallpox and measles from cattle, cholera from hogs, yellow fever from monkeys, and influenza from swine and poultry.

In fact, the specialized hog and poultry farms are an important health precaution. Most specialized hog farms raise no poultry, and few confinement poultry farms raise hogs. Thus, the viruses have only one livestock species and a few humans from which to steal DNA.

This isn't your grandfather's farmyard, thank goodness.  

The HSUS just doesn't like confinement farms under any circumstances. They rush to condemn the big farms at every opportunity, lack of evidence be damned. But they also want us to give up eating meat—and want us to give up our pets. The HSUS, fortunately, takes no part in running your local animal shelter. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.


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