Denialism and H1N1
Time for the mainstream media to face the factory
farm-swine flu link 12
10 Nov 2009
by Tom Philpott
�Since last spring and the onset of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza
outbreak in humans, USDA has consistently asked that the media stop calling this
�novel� pandemic virus �swine flu.� By continuing to mislabel the 2009 pandemic
H1N1 influenza virus that is affecting human populations around the world, the
media is causing undue and undeserved harm to America�s agriculture industry,
especially to pork producers.�
�From the USDA Website
Novelist-turned-anti-meat-pamphleteer Jonathan Safran Foer made a stark claim
about swine flu on The Ellen DeGeneres Show recently:
This swine flu that�s
now an epidemic, they�ve been able to trace it back to a farm in North Carolina�
A hog farm. Nobody knows this. Nobody talks about it. We�ve been told this lie
that it came from Mexico.
Well, the situation is even worse than Foer
suggests. Authorities aren�t actually saying the novel strain of swine flu �came
from Mexico.� That would be uncomfortable, because it first cropped up there a
few miles from vast hog operations run by U.S. pork giant Smithfield.
they are insisting that �pork is safe��and doing little or nothing to monitor
hog confinements for evidence of infection.
For years before the current
outbreak, scientists openly worried that CAFOs (concentrated animal feedlot
operations) provided excellent arenas for the generation and spread of dangerous
new flu varieties.
Yet another bit of evidence on this score crossed my
desk this week: a �News Focus� piece that ran in Science back in 2003 called
�Chasing the Fickle Swine Flu.� (PDF) It�s jumping-off point is the very
incident Foer pointed to on Ellen�the outbreak of a novel strain of flu,
genetically related to the current strain, on a North Carolina farm in 1998. The
opening is worth quoting at length:
One of the first signs of trouble was a
barking cough that resounded through a North Carolina farm in August 1998. Every
pig in an operation of 2400 animals
sickened, with symptoms similar to those
caused by the human flu: high fever, poor appetite, and lethargy. Pregnant sows
were hit hardest, and almost 10% aborted their litters, says veterinary
virologist Gene Erickson of the Rollins Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in
Raleigh. Many piglets that survived in utero were later born small and weak, and
some 50 sows died.
The culprit, a new strain of swine influenza to which the
animals had little immunity, left veterinarians and virologists alike puzzled.
Although related flu strains in birds, humans, and pigs outside North America
constantly evolve, only one influenza subtype had sickened North American pigs
since 1930. That spell was suddenly broken about 4 years ago, and a quick
succession of new flu viruses has been sweeping through North America�s 100
million pigs ever since. This winter, for example, up to 15% of the 4- to
7-week-old piglets on a large Minnesota farm died, even though their mothers had
been vaccinated against swine flu, says veterinary pathologist Kurt Rossow of
the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. [Emphasis added.]
Here we have
a phenomenon I�ve written about before: the flu strains circulating through the
U.S. swine herd didn�t mutate much after 1930�until 1998. The novel strain that
emerged in a North Carolina CAFO then was devastating for pigs, whose immune
systems did not recognize it; but luckily, it didn�t have the genetic chops to
jump to humans.
By 2003, scientists were actively worried that would soon
change, the Science article reveals.
�Within the swine population, we now
have a mammalian-adapted virus that is extremely promiscuous,� one researcher
told the magazine. �We could end up with a dangerous virus,� i.e., a mutation
that jumps to humans.
And researchers were looking to the CAFO as the site
where such a thing could rear up. In the 1990s, hog farming underwent an
unprecedented process of intensification and consolidation. As Science put it:
In the past decade, big swine producers have gotten bigger, and many small
producers have gone out of business. The percentage of farms with 5000 or more
animals surged from 18% in 1993 to 53% in 2002, according to Rodger Ott, an
agricultural statistician at the National Agricultural Statistics Service in
Back in 2003, there was no taboo about stating the
�With a group of 5000 animals, if a novel virus shows up, it
will have more opportunity to replicate and potentially spread than in a group
of 100 pigs on a small farm,� [University of Minnesota veterinary pathologist
Kurt] Rossow says.
But giant hog confinements weren�t the only sites of
concern: Another vet-science expert warned Science of the concern that
small-scale, pasture-based operations are even more menacing than CAFOs, because
�pigs in outside pens, as is common on small farms, can be exposed to the
droppings of migratory waterfowl, which may contain infectious viruses;
large-scale confinement agriculture may prevent such exposure.�
that particular expert happened to be the �director of veterinary science at the
National Pork Board in Clive, Iowa.� Now, there may be risk associated with
keeping pigs outdoors where they can come into contact with birds. But the small
size of outdoor herds means much less opportunity for the kind of mixing and
reassortment to create a high probability for jumping to humans. Can anyone name
a vet-science expert seriously concerned about this factor�that is, who doesn�t
draw a salary from the industry?
In addition to sheer numbers, the Science
piece points to another factor linking CAFOs to the generation of new strains:
an explosion in vaccinations.
In 1995, swine flu vaccination was so new
that the National Swine Survey conducted by the United States Department of
Agriculture didn�t bother to assess its extent. ... Today [i.e, back in 2003],
more than half of all sows are vaccinated against both H1N1 and H3N2 viruses,
says Robyn Fleck, a veterinarian at Schering-Plough, one of the nation�s three
producers of swine influenza vaccine.
All those vaccines created concerns
of a treadmill effect�when all the pigs in a buiilding are vaccinated, only
vaccine-resistent flu mutations can survive, creating a constant need for new
vaccines. Already in 2003, Science reported, researchers were finding flu in
vaccinated pigs. �Flu is also showing up in piglets thought to be protected by
maternal antibodies passed on from vaccinated sows,� the article states. Here�s
a choice bit:
Widespread vaccination may actually be selecting for new
viral types. If vaccination develops populations with uniform immunity to
certain virus genotypes, say H1N1 and H3N2, then other viral mutants would be
favored. [Molecular virologist Richard] Webby suggests that the combination of
avian polymerase genes generating errors in the genetic sequence and immunologic
pressure from vaccination may be selecting for unique variants.
same virologist, Richard Webby, goes on argue that mass vaccination is
important, drawbacks aside. The �benefits of vaccination outweigh this side
effect,� Webby told Science, because �If you can decrease the amount of virus,
you can reduce the chances of interspecies transmission.�
To me, this
statement illuminates a gaping dilemma presented by industrial-scale hog
farming: we�re forced to choose between a vaccination treadmill, which reduces
the incidence level of flu in CAFOs but predictably generates novel,
vaccine-resistant strains; or not vaccinating at all, which would allow flu to
run rampant among millions of hogs.
Even a veterinary expert for
Schering-Plough, the pharmaceutical giant (now owned by Merck) with a large
position in the swine-vaccine market, seemed a little concerned about the
situation�not just the vaccine treadmill, but the whole game of factory hog
Schering-Plough veterinarian Terri Wasmoen acknowledges that
vaccines �may be pressuring change.� But she also notes that larger hog
confinement operations and more shipping from state to state may play a role.
�We need epidemiological work to understand these issues, and there is no
funding now,� she says. [Emphasis added.]
That last bit is jaw-dropping
for several reasons. Here are two: 1) With a known and obvious public-health
threat brewing, public-health authorities had zero political will to even muster
funding to study it; and 2) a multi-billion-dollar pharmaceutical company was
minting profits from a growing market it knew contained a serious public-health
risk, yet could itself find �no funding� to research it.
Well, here we are,
six years later. The scenario that scientists feared and predicted would unfold
has unfolded: a novel strain of H1N1 has jumped to humans, and is now spreading
rapidly. Scientists are now hoping the strain won�t mutate into one that�s more
difficult to shake off. But as we know now, hope doesn�t do much to stop the
evolution of flu strains. There remains no large-scale effort to investigate
CAFOs as engines of new swine flu strains�or even monitor them for infections.
�[T]here is no systematic monitoring of [human] populations where there may be
interspecies transmission between humans, birds, and pigs,� a CDC epidemiologist
complained to Science six years ago, referring to the lack of monitoring of CAFO
workers for infection. Amazingly, that remains true today.
culture has proven itself incapable of challenging the multibillion-dollar pork
industry. But what about our media culture�the watchdogs who keep democratic
society safe from unaccountable power?
As Foer says, nobody�besides him,
me, and a few others�is talking about this link. The Washington Post made a game
try a few weeks ago, but not before ludicrously taking pains to stress the
�pathogen-free� nature of CAFOs.
Who will be the first mainstream journalist
to train a sharp eye�and stake the prestige of big-name publication�on this
question? Perhaps the New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter, who recently
published a book on scientific �denialism,� will raise his voice against the
systematic denial of evidence that CAFOs generate dangerous flu strains.
Grist food editor Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a
sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of
North Carolina. Follow my Twitter feed; contact me at tphilpott[at]grist[dot]org.