Monday, September 21, 2009

Swine Flu Expected to Infect up to Half of U.S. Population this Year – and the Pork Industry’s Role

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report this week that predicts the H1N1 virus could infect 30 to 50% of the American population, with peak contagion in mid-October of this year. 30,000 to 90,000 deaths could result from the illness, compared to the 36,000 deaths that occur annually from ordinary influenza viruses.

The vaccine is close. But not close enough.

The long awaited H1N1 vaccine will not be available until October, coincident with the peak of the virus, and an individual’s maximum immunity will not be in effect until weeks after the shot. Manufacturers hope to speed up availability of initial doses, and have a certain amount available as early as September.

What is role does the pork industry play?

Word on the street focuses more on fear of the disease, rather than the cause. But back before H1N1 was classified as a pandemic, some blamed Mexico’s pork producer Smithfield for facilitating this illness. Smithfield has since been cleared. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO (commonly known as factory farms) certainly have a degree of responsibility in this problem. The World Health Organization maintains that:


Swine influenza viruses do not normally infect humans. However, outbreaks and sporadic human infection with SIVs have been occasionally reported and serosurveys have demonstrated exposure of humans in certain risk groups. Most commonly, infection occurs in people in direct and close contact with pigs such as farm and abattoir workers. Onward transmission of SIVs among people in close contact with each other has occurred on a few occasions. Human influenza viruses have also been transmitted from people to pigs.

Transmission among and between pigs and humans is likely to occur through direct or indirect contact with respiratory secretions or inhaling large droplets or aerosols spread through coughing and sneezing. The clinical picture of SIV infection in people is generally similar to that of human seasonal influenza. It is likely that most people, especially those who do not have regular contact with pigs, do not have immunity to SIVs and thus would be susceptible to SIV infection, although cross-protectivity studies are ongoing to explore this question further.


Logic would lead one to believe that if pigs are the “mixing bowl” for super viruses, the most likely way human and pig viruses have opportunity to make “direct and close contact” – is in these CAFO’s.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production has a more aggressive stance on CAFO’s. (Note: ifap stands for “Industrial Farm Animal Production”.)

Health risks increase depending on the rate of exposure, which can vary widely. Those engaged directly with livestock production, such as farmers, farm workers, and their families, typically have more frequent and more concentrated exposures to chemical or infectious agents. For others with less continuous exposure to livestock and livestock facilities, the risk levels decline accordingly. Direct exposure is not the only health risk, however; health impacts often reach far beyond the ifap facility. Groundwater contamination, for example, can extend throughout the aquifer, affecting drinking water supplies at some distance from the source of contamination.

Infectious agents, such as a novel (or new) avian influenza virus, that arise in an ifap facility may be transmissible from person to person in a community setting and well beyond. An infectious agent that originates at an ifap facility may persist through meat processing and contaminate consumer food animal products, resulting in a serious disease outbreak far from the ifap facility. Monitoring is a basic component of strategies to protect the public from harmful effects of contamination or disease, yet ifap monitoring systems are inadequate.

Current animal identification and meat product labeling practices make it difficult or impossible to trace infections to the source. Likewise, ifap workers, who may serve as vectors carrying potential disease-causing organisms from the animals they work with to the larger community, do not usually participate in public health monitoring, disease reporting, and surveillance programs because, as an agricultural activity, ifap is often exempt.

Furthermore, migrant and visiting workers, many of whom are undocumented, present a particular challenge to adequate monitoring and surveillance because their legal status often makes them unwilling to participate in health monitoring programs. In general, public health concerns associated with ifap include heightened risks of pathogens (disease- and nondisease-causing) passed from animals to humans; the emergence of microbes resistant to antibiotics and antimicrobials, due in large part to widespread use of antimicrobials for nontherapeutic purposes; food-borne disease; worker health concerns; and dispersed impacts on the adjacent community at large.

This would give reason why companies like Smithfield are not held accountable – it would be difficult to prove.

Classic American overindulgence in meat products begets a larger meat industry, which begets sick, diseased and abused animals. Pandemics are cyclical, and a fact of life. But factory farms have a heavy hand whe contribute to illness and harm to nature and humanity.

But can I eat pork?

We have heard over and over that eating pork continues to be safe. The World Health Organization asserts:

Pork meat is usually cooked or otherwise processed prior to consumption, and cooking time/temperature regimes for pork meat will readily inactivate any influenza virus potentially present. Thus, it can be concluded that consumption of pork and its products, processed in accordance with good hygienic practices recommended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the OIE, will not be a source of infection.

The risk of infection of H1N1 virus through ingestion [sic] pig meat or other products derived from pigs has never been established. In any case, heat treatments commonly used in cooking meat (e.g. 70 °C/160 °F) or other appropriate processing will readily inactivate any viruses potentially present in raw meat products. It can therefore be concluded that pork meat and its products, handled in accordance with good hygienic practices recommended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the OIE, will not be a source of infection.

This appears to be a somewhat lackluster affirmation that pork products are safe. They are essentially saying that no, you will not be infected if you cook your meat properly, but that retailers should not distribute diseased meat. Hopefully pork will be better monitored than chicken – as salmonella sickens 40,000 people annually in the U.S., with around 15 percent of chickens infected with the pathogen.

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