May 1, 2009 Swine Flu Update: The Epi-Porcine-Center?

As I posted this update, an article appeared in the Wall Street Journal possibly linking A/H1N1 to California.

In Veracruz´s Perote Valley, only a few kilometers from the state capital Xalapa, an industrial pig farm turns nearly a million hogs a year into tocino and carnitas and provides work for the residents of a town called La Gloria.

Until two weeks ago, this tucked-away valley was far beyond the gaze of the international press. Now, news crews from around the world are headed there to get a look at¨patient zero¨ and the pig farm where some think this A/H1N1 swine flu may have originated.

¨Patientzero¨ is ÉdgarHernández, a five-year old boy who lives in Perote. He suffered and then survived, the swine flu virus. The Governor of the state of Veracruz, FidelHerrera, and other state and local authorities claim that Edgar is the only A/H1N1victim in his town. However, it turns out that during March and early April, hundreds of people in the area were sick, though local officials say they suffered from something other than swine flu.

This pig farm in Perote is a joint venture between Smithfield Farms, the world´slargest producer of pork, based in Virginia, and Agroindustrias de Mexico, a Mexican multinational that produces and distributes coffee, cacao, cotton, cornand pigs. Agroindustrias de Mexico even has an agro-finance business that lends money to its providers. The name of the joint venture pig farm is Granjas Carroll (Carroll Farms).

As journalists have begun to focus on La Gloria in the hunt for this swine flu´sorigin, Governor Herrera and other Mexican officials are pointing fingers at Asia and the US as the source. Mexico´s Health Secretary, Jose Angel Cordovaalso has rejected the spotlight cast on the Perote Valley.

It is no surprise to experts like Mike Davis (interviewed here on Democracy Now), the author of TheMonster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, that a virulent flu strain would spring from an industrial pig farm. In his recent article in The Guardian, Davis writes about what he calls ¨the planetary catastrophe of industrialized and ecologically unhinged livestock production¨ and speculates about the powerful viruses that can spring from poultry and livestock farms.

A virus doesn´t leap from a pig or other animal to humans without sustained contact between the species. Therefore, the most likely place for a ¨swine flu¨ epidemic is on or close to a pig farm. That's to say, taking a closer look at Granjas Carroll isn't unreasonable, especially since there were a lot of sick people in the surrounding area.

According to some recent online articles, the first question to ask might not be so much¨where¨ precisely the flu originated, but ¨how.¨ The ¨where¨ follows as amatter of course.

Al Giordano, founder of the website, suggests that Smithfield Farms, after being fined under the Clean Water Act in the US and running into other regulatory problems, moved some operations to a place where oversight might be less stringent once the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was enacted. Following this logic, Giordano proposes that this virus not be called ¨swine flu¨ at all, but ¨NAFTA  flu.¨

Giordano cites an article published about Granjas Carroll in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada describing the Carroll farm in the most squalid terms. According to the article, " Clouds of flies emanate from the rusty lagoons where the Carroll Ranches business tosses the fecal wastes of its pigfarms."

Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program of the International Relations Center (IRC), an organization that fosters citizen action and does policy research, makes a similar argument, writing that ¨NAFTA unleashed the spread of industrial livestock farms in Mexico by creating investment incentives for transnational companies to relocate operations there. The ´race to the bottom´ -where companies move production to areas where environmental and health restrictions and enforcement are low, is exemplified in livestock farming.¨

Industrial scale pig farming anywhere is a dirty business. If you want to stick your nose into the fecal and antibiotic details of pig farming in the US, read the 2006 article published in Rolling Stone magazine about Smithfield Farms. In that article, Jeff Tietz argues that if Smithfield and other industrial pig farmers disposed of the pig waste in an environmentally safe and responsible way, they would't be profitable. In other words, making a big mess is part of the business.

In a recent opinion piece published by El Universal, Carlos Macias Richard, a researcher at theMexico City-based Centro de Investigacionesy Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social (CIESAS), offers a more detailed look at what may have happed in the Perote Valley that goes beyond the more standard, structuralist critiques of NAFTA presented by Giordano and Carlsen.

In his article, Macias Richard claims that health authorities in Veracruz acted quickly to eradicate the illness that appeared there in the first months of the year, but have not revealed the medicines they used to treat the local population. That medicine, he says, would give us clues as to what infected the residents of La Gloria.

In addition, he claims that Granjas Carroll invited a consultant, working for the American risk management company Veratect, to visit the farm in March. The consultant, James Wilson, has confirmed this. Macias Richard goes on to suggest that Wilson informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of the burgeoning epidemic in La Gloria, but that perhaps he did not tell the Mexican government. If this is true, then why didn't Wilson inform the government?  asks MaciasRichard.  If it's not true, why did the Mexican government wait three weeks to take action against A/H1N1?

And why, he asks, was a ¨sanitary fence¨ placed around La Gloria for a few days?

According to a Mexican media professional who is coordinating journalists in the Perote Valley area, some reporters doing research in La Gloria during the past few days say townspeople are scared to talk to the press and have been intimidated into silence.

The search for what happened in rural Veracruz is shaping up to be a pot boiler. Did swine flu really begin there? Or did the people in the town of La Gloria suffer a massive attack of some other ailment? Have transnational businesses exploited the people and environment of Veracruz to the point where they could have put the world at risk?

It is early, still, in the story. But it seems that we should all keep an eye on industrial livestock farms in general and the story developing in rural Veracruz.