The May 18, 2009, edition of Newsweek was an attention grabber.
Adjoining the photo of an unmistakable pig snout poking through a gate were these words: “Fear & The Flu: The New Age of Pandemics.”
The cover story, “The Path of a Pandemic was written by Laurie Garrett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with an impressive bibliography of articles and books on global health and emerging diseases.
Garrett documented the evolution and spread of the H1N1 virus, explaining the mutations at the cellular level and the birth of the new strain. Clearly, she had done her homework, tracking the first known case of H1N1 influenza to a Wisconsin teenager, describing it as “a mosaic of a wild-bird form of flu, a human type and a strain found in pigs … an influenza virus unlike any previously seen.”
The article held my attention to the closing paragraphs when Garrett hopped on the anti-meat soapbox and proclaimed: “A wiser set of pig-related actions would turn to the strange ecology we have created to feed meat to our massive human population. It is a strange world wherein billions of animals are concentrated into tiny spaces, breeding stock is flown to production sites all over the world and poorly paid migrant workers are exposed to infected animals. And it's going to get much worse, as the world's once poor populations of India and China enter the middle class.”
Ironically, in a previous paragraph, she rightly noted: “Some governments are banning pork products from the Americas, as if it were possible to get the flu from eating a cooked sausage. It is not.”
The implication, then, is that the more intensive livestock production required to meet the growing demand of a more affluent global population will increase the likelihood that viruses will mutate and increase the risk of a viral-based pandemic.
Garrett closed noting: “This is the ecology that, in the cases of pigs and chickens, is breeding influenza. It is an ecology that promotes viral evolution. And if we don't do something about it, this ecology will one day spawn a severe pandemic that will dwarf that of 1918.”
Now wait a minute.
I hastily dialed up Jerry Torrison at the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab to get his reading. He acknowledged that Garrett “raises some points that bear consideration,” but “the pyramid logic of her piece doesn't hold up in the end.”
For starters, it's a huge jump — if not a contradiction — to equate a teenage boy's exposure to a housebound chicken and a few pigs in a small Wisconsin slaughterhouse to modern-day confinement rearing of meat animals setting us up for the next great influenza pandemic.
The current “triple reassortment influenza that has viral pieces from pig, bird and human flu strains doesn't surprise me,” Torrison says, but, of course, there was no intensive livestock production in 1918, when the influenza virus jumped from birds to people, and then to pigs.
What We Know
To be fair, Torrison affirms that the concentration of animals — whether four-legged or two — increases the risk of shared health issues, including the risk of developing pathogens that are passed from one species to another.
For the most part — pigs infect pigs, chickens infect chickens and people infect people.
“We have been able to concentrate high densities of humans in tight places, such as New York City, with proper sanitation, public hygiene and health care,” Torrison observes.
Why then do some people ridicule livestock producers when they have developed comprehensive biosecurity and health programs, prudent use of vaccines and antibiotics, and thoughtful production practices?
“We test and quarantine breeding stock moving internationally, but not people. Intensive agriculture has become the scapegoat for a natural phenomenon that clearly predates it. Isn't it odd that the same American consumers who carry hand sanitizers to restaurants are being told that pigs and chickens raised in the mud are categorically healthier than those raised indoors?” he asks.
Keep Telling Your Story
Realistically, the health of the global swine herd is at an all-time high. Additionally, the pork industry has invested heavily in identifying and sequencing thousands of influenza viruses from around the world. Coincidentally, this knowledge is being used by the Centers for Disease Control to help sort through the viral culprits that cause an influenza outbreak such as the wily H1N1 virus.
Where does that leave us? At the front line — defending our industry, our stringent production practices, and the safety of the pork we provide to an increasingly affluent global community.