Does corporate hog farming breed swine flu?

Critics of multinational agribusiness farming practices suggest that Mexico's problems could be a result of overcrowded pigs in unsanitary conditions.

Published April 28, 2009 6:11PM (EDT)

Is there a link between corporate hog farming and the outbreak of swine flu? Grist's Tom Philpot, relying on loose translations of Mexican newspaper reports, is speculating that there might be. The key piece of evidence: Smithfield, the world's largest producer of pork, "operates massive hog-raising operations in Perote, Mexico, in the state of Vera Cruz, where the outbreak originated."

The World Health Organization's swine flu FAQ states that "there is no clear indication that the current human cases with swine influenza infection are related to recent or ongoing influenza-like disease events in pigs," but there's no getting around the basic fact: As the WHO also says, "people usually get swine flu from infected pigs," and there are a whole lot of pigs in Perote, Mexico -- at least 950,000, according to Philpot.

Philpot regularly writes critically about corporate agribusinesses, and his implication is obvious: There's something unnatural about cramming hundreds of thousands of pigs together in unsanitary conditions, and so maybe we shouldn't be surprised to find a massive hog farm at ground zero of a potential pandemic. Mexican news reports, writes Philpot, also paint a fairly dire picture of the environmental conditions afflicting Smithfield's Mexican operations.

I'm sure that this is just the beginning of this story. But if Philpot is right, then we have potentially much worse things to worry about in the future. In his post about Mexico and Smithfield, Philpot didn't even mention the post that he had written the day before, referencing rumors reported by the Associated Press suggesting that China's largest agribusiness company, COFCO, might be interesting in buying Smithfield.

Chinese farmers raise plenty of hogs themselves, but up until recently, mostly on small farms. But according to a story in Forbes, COFCO plans to make itself the largest pig farmer in China, with annual production of 10 to 15 million hogs, "raised in accordance with standards and practices prevailing in the United States."

Why so many? Chinese meat consumption is surging. One study found that since 1995 alone, "China's meat consumption ... has increased by 112 percent to 53 kilograms per person per year."

Newly affluent Chinese are eating more meat. Rising Chinese agribusinesses aiming to supply growing markets turn to Western agribusinesses for their business models. Corporate hog farming, one would guess, has a big and bright future. But if the current outbreak of swine flu is connected to Smithfield's Mexican hog farm operations, then so too, might deadly pandemics.

UPDATE: Mike Davis pursues a similar line of thought, as only he can, with plenty of pungeant prose and detail.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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China Globalization How The World Works Latin America Mexico Swine Flu