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Profit comes before public health

The World Health Organisation has increased its assessment of the risk of a swine flu pandemic to the second highest level, yet not one politician has spoken about the underlying reasons for the outbreak.

There is a simple explanation: swine fever is the unavoidable by-product of the industrialised system of livestock production run by global corporations for the benefit of shareholders under conditions where public health is second to profitability.

La Gloria protestFor months, citizens in the community of La Gloria, in the Mexican State of Veracruz, have asked for help to deal with an outbreak of a respiratory disease which they were convinced was caused by pollution from a local pig factory. It was set up by Granja Carroll, a subsidiary of the US company Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.

Smithfield denied the illness had any connection with its operations and community activists were threatened and arrested. But on 27 April 2009, it emerged that the first case of swine flu diagnosed was a 4-year old boy from La Gloria.

There had also been an outbreak of avian flu amongst flocks of industrialised chickens, held in a factory about 50 kilometres from La Gloria, owned by Mexico’s largest meat producer Granjas Bachoco. It was not made public because of fears about what it would do the meat export business.

As this dangerous combined virus was transmitted to humans, it occurred to me, and I’m sure to you too, that the pigs and chickens are having their revenge for the miserable, inhumane treatment they suffer. But of course, pigs and chickens don’t have any control over the myriad illnesses that affect them because of the conditions in which they are held. That is why they are continually pumped full of antibiotics, which only increases the risk of new viruses taking hold.

The organisation GRAIN, which monitors the impact of industrialised agriculture, explains that government researchers have known for many years that the conditions of factory farming create the risk of new genetic mutations which can cross the species gap to infect humans.

But no attempt has been made to change production methods and we are simply meant to accept that this is the price we have to pay for cheap meat. Tell that to the parents of the 23-month-old child who died in Texas yesterday – and those who will die, however many it turns out to be, as medical services battle to protect populations.

PukeSmithfield’s total sales in 2007 were $11.4 billion. As well as their operations in the US and Mexico, they have plants in Poland, France and China. Their website has pictures of shiny hams and smiling “moms” and opens with the sentiment: “Food is unforgettable memories. Food is pure joy. Food is family and friends.”

yuckBut for Smithfield, food is actually 250 male hogs crammed into a space the size of a very small flat. And millions of gallons of excrement lying in toxic pools near to communities across the United States and, of course, in La Gloria. A 2007 article in Rolling Stone magazine claimed that if Smithfield dealt with the pollution safely, they would actually make a loss.

What the giant meat companies do is not “animal husbandry”. It is a ruthless industrial process taking pigs from birth to profit as fast and as cheap as possible. And those UK pig farmers who employ traditional methods, keeping pigs outdoors in arcs, are under continual pressure to intensify production so the supermarkets can push down costs and increase their profits even more.

The urgent choice facing all humanity is clear. Do we continue to allow the corporations, in every sector from food, to energy, to pharmaceuticals, to threaten our lives and our health in pursuit of profit? Or do we take control of the processes that support life – food, energy and health care - and start to work with nature in an entirely different, not-for-profit, way? In my view, this is a no brainer.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
30 April 2009

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