Swine flu on the automated pig farm

Here 2000 sows, there 200 sows, Old McDonald had a festering concentrated animal feeding operation

By Andrew Leonard
Published September 4, 2009 8:05PM (EDT)

A tweet from Tom Philpott alerts us to the definitive article written, so far, on the intersection between swine flu and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), a superb piece of science reporting by Charles Schmidt.

The bottom line: There is legitimate reason to fear that CAFOs are breeding grounds for "novel" viruses. But we don't really know what's going on because independent scientists have limited access to CAFOs, the  CAFO operators minimize testing of animals and CAFO workers, and "industrial animal agriculture... pays for virtually all the animal sciences research going on at land-grant universities today," according to Robert Martin, a senior officer with the Pew Environmental Group.

The entire piece is worth reading for its nuanced, careful, and comprehensive look at the science of swine flu, but I was struck by one fact that had little to do with science, per se. CAFO workers are considered to be a major vector for human-to-human virus transfer, but CAFOs aren't routinely inspected by the government agency that is supposed to look after worker safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

However, OSHA typically exempts facilities with fewer than 11 employees from routine inspection unless otherwise requested by employees or other agencies. Yet, like many other modern production facilities, CAFOs are largely automated, so a typical factory farm housing 2,000 sows requires a crew of just 7 people, according to Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for Murphy-Brown, the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

The operators concentrate the animals, automate their feeding and waste disposal and staff them with so few people that they slip under OSHA's net. Beautiful.

Andrew Leonard

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

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

How The World Works Sustainable Food Swine Flu