MEXICO: Swine Flu Fears Take Toll on Pork Industry

  • by Emilio Godoy (mexico city)
  • Inter Press Service

Her response was typical of many consumers in Mexico, where the pork industry has come under scrutiny since the outbreak of the flu epidemic on Apr. 24, which so far has officially infected 97 people and killed seven in Mexico, although some 1,300 patients are under observation.

Mexico’s Secretary of Agriculture Alberto Cárdenas gave assurances that consumers can safely eat pork, which does not transmit the virus.

Nevertheless, China, Ukraine, Russia and other countries have banned imports of pork from Mexico and parts of the United States – where 109 cases of swine flu, most of them mild, have been confirmed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its pandemic alert level to phase 5, the second-highest level, on Wednesday.

The total worldwide cases of swine flu had climbed to 257 in 11 countries by Thursday, according to WHO.

Veratect Corporation, a two-year-old U.S. company that monitors disease outbreaks worldwide, claims it identified the first case of the new virus on Mar. 30 in the municipality of Perote, in the southeastern Mexican state of Veracruz, 800 km from the Mexican capital.

The Seattle, Washington-based company says it reported the cases to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCs) and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) in early April.

A pig factory farm run by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest pork producer and processor – operates near the Perote village of La Gloria.

Mexico’s health ministry confirmed Wednesday that the first case in Mexico of swine flu – which is a new mix of pig, bird, and human viruses – occurred in Perote, although the first person to die of the disease in this country was an employee of a national tax office on Apr. 12 in the southern state of Oaxaca.

Researchers and activists point to intensive pig farming as a perfect breeding-ground for new viruses.

Silvia Ribeiro, a researcher with the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), says the roots of the current epidemic lie in the pig farming industry dominated by transnational corporations.

The industry rejects such allegations. Alejandro Ramírez, assistant director of the Confederation of Mexican Hog Farmers, denied that pigs were the cause of the epidemic.

He also said that although pork does not transmit the virus, consumption of pork in Mexico has fallen 80 percent. Annual per capita consumption of pork in this country is approximately 13 kgs.

'This is a critical situation, and we are seeking solutions,' he told IPS. 'We need to decide what to do with the meat that is not being sold.'

After a Jun. 30, 2007 inspection of Granjas Carroll, the federal environmental protection agency, PROFEPA, reported that the company – the largest pork producer in the country – had committed irregularities in waste disposal that posed a threat to the soil, air, water and underground water sources.

PROFEPA set a Jun. 30, 2009 deadline for the factory farm to bring its operations up to the country’s environmental standards, in order to obtain the environment ministry’s 'clean industry certificate.'

Some 6,000 pork producers with 14 million hogs produce more than one million tons a month of pork in Mexico.

Hog farmers in Mexico and the United States pressed for the name of the disease to be changed.

On Thursday, WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency would stop using the term 'swine flu,' in order to prevent confusion over the danger posed by pigs. Instead, he said, it would 'stick with the technical scientific name H1N1 influenza A.'

In a preliminary analysis of the new virus, researchers found that it arose from North American swine flu strains first identified in 1998 at a hog factory farm in the U.S. state of North Carolina, where a similar new human-pig hybrid virus had killed hundreds of animals.

In a report based on a 2.5 year investigation, which was released in April 2008, the U.S.-based Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production concluded that industrialised animal agriculture posed 'unacceptable' public health risks, as well as threats to the environment.

'Due to the large numbers of animals housed in close quarters in typical (industrial farm animal production) facilities, there are many opportunities for animals to be infected by several strains of pathogens, leading to increased chance for a strain to emerge that can infect and spread in humans,' warns the report 'Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America'.

The independent commission, whose 15 members came from the fields of veterinary medicine, agriculture, public health, business, government, rural advocacy and animal welfare, was set up in 2005 to study the impacts of the drastic changes in animal agriculture in the United States over the past 40 years.

The report emphasised the danger that 'the continual cycling of viruses in large herds or flocks (will) increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission.'

In 1965, there were 53 million hogs on more than one million farms in the United States, compared to 65 million animals in just 65,000 facilities today, half of which have more than 5,000 hogs.

A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) mission headed by Animal Health Officer Moisés Vargas is currently in Mexico to study the role that pigs have played in the current epidemic.

'There is nothing to check, because the (pig) farms operate according to health standards and measures,' said the Confederation of Mexican Hog Farmers’ Ramírez. 'The best solution is to start consuming pork again.'

The Egyptian government decided Wednesday to have the 300,000 pigs in the country slaughtered to prevent the spread of swine flu.

But the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) released a statement Thursday advising ' members that the culling of pigs will not help to guard against public or animal health risks presented by this novel A/H1N1 influenza virus and such action is inappropriate.'

Acting WHO assistant director-general Keiji Fukuda said Thursday that 'Good disease surveillance is now required in countries in the southern hemisphere, which is coming into its winter season when seasonal influenza tends to peak.

'It is possible that we will see outbreaks of the H1N1 virus occurring more frequently in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere. This is something we have to be on the watch out very carefully for,' he said.

Besides Mexico and the United States, cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Austria (1), Britain (8), Canada (19), Germany (3), Israel (2), the Netherlands (1), New Zealand (3), Spain (13) and Switzerland (1).

WHO continues to advise no restriction of regular travel or closure of borders.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service