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Monday, May 04, 2009

Congratulations To Smithfield Foods!

by tristero

I missed this when it was announced in October, but Smithfield Foods won an environmental sustainability award.
Susan Forsell, Vice President Supply Chain, Quality Systems, McDonald's USA said, "Smithfield Foods deserves to be recognized for their innovative approaches to protect the environment, to ensure the safety of their employees, the well-being of animals, the quality of products, and to promoting education in the communities they serve."
That's right: Smithfield won an environmental sustainability award from McDonald's. What an honor! Of course, that must be a different Smithfield's than this one:
In 1999,[then head of Smithfield Joseph] Luter bought a state-owned company called Animex, one of Poland's biggest hog processors. Then he began doing business through a Polish subsidiary called Prima Farms, acquiring huge moribund Communist-era hog farms and converting them into concentrated feeding operations. Pork prices in Poland were low, so Smithfield's sweeping expansion didn't make strict economic sense, except that it had the virtue of pushing small hog farmers toward bankruptcy. By 2003, Animex was operating six subsidiary companies and seven processing plants, selling nine brands of meat and taking in $338 million annually.

The usual violations occurred. Near one of Smithfield's largest plants, in Byszkowo, an enormous pool of frozen pig shit, pumped into a lagoon in winter, melted and ran into two nearby lakes. The lake water turned brown; residents in local villages got skin rashes and eye infections; the stench made it impossible to eat. A recent report to the Helsinki Commission found that Smithfield's pollution throughout Poland was damaging the country's ecosystems. Overapplication was endemic. Farmers without permits were piping liquid pig shit directly into watersheds that fed into the Baltic Sea.
Actually, it is the same Smithfield Foods that won the award. I guess in the past 10 years they've gone green. And if you believe that, there's a hog farm down in Veracruz I'd like to sell you.

BTW, here's a video interview with current CEO of Smithfield Foods, Larry Pope. In it, he claims that swine flu isn't swine flu. Except he also agrees it is. It is simply impossible to parse most of what he's saying: his sentences make sense, but they just don't add up to a coherent meaning except for one thing: we're working darn hard to make sure you won't blame Smithfield. I, for one, believe him. They are indeed working darn hard to make sure you won't blame them. (Note: to date, there is no conclusive evidence tying Smithfield hog farms to the outbreak, despite the fact that most of the earliest recent cases occurred about 12 miles away from a Smithfield subsidiary with truly disgusting conditions. )

Pope also claims, among other things that no employee or pig has gotten sick from swine flu, which, to be kind, is disingenuous. Let's talk about the pigs first. The following statement appeared in a WHO FAQ about swine flu. It has since been removed, although a search of the sentence turns up references to it on their site as well as in this pdf:
The virus is spread among pigs by aerosols, direct and indirect contact, and asymptomatic carrier pigs.
In other words, the pigs don't need to have swine flu symptoms to spread swine flu (again, it is important to stress that obviously pork products you buy in a store cannot spread swine flu ). [Update: Swine flu has recently been found in Canadian pigs.]

As for employees at the hog farms, they too needn't be sick:
Although immunity to swine H1N1 viruses is low in the human population, a high proportion of persons occupationally exposed to pigs (such as pig farmers or pig veterinarians) have been shown in several studies to have antibody evidence of prior swine H1N1 flu infection.
Further swine flu news: The current virus appears to have first appeared in the US in 1998:
But let us be clear: the genetic sequences, which admirably are all being posted publicly, overwhelmingly confirm that the virus from Mexico is one of a type that has been circulating aggressively in North American pigs since 1998...

...based on the scientific details that have emerged in the past 24 hours from Andrew Rambaut's lab at the University of Edinburgh, it is clearer than ever that there is a direct link from pigs to the human swine flu virus.
[Note: I haven't read the material from Dr. Rambaut's lab.]

Some folks think all the swine flu brouhaha is just so much...swill... because so far, except in Mexico, the swine flu has been mild. First, the swine flu has been spreading rapidly all over the world. Secondly, as many people point out, the first wave of infections in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 was relatively mild. It was later waves of infection that were the most serious. Thirdly, there is no vaccine for this strain of swine flu.

Is all this reason to panic? Of course not. We're not Republicans, for goodness sakes! But it is cause for serious concern [Update: the mortality rate has recently been estimated as being between 0.1 and 0.5%, about half the rate as the more standard flu. That doesn't mean swine flu is "mild." It simply underscores how dangerous all influenzas really are.]. And it is cause to investigate carefully and thoroughly how and where this virus originated and evolved.