Is China Buying the Swine Flu Farms?

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Eating Liberally's ever-curious Kat connects the dots between the current swine flu crisis (getting worse by the minute) and China's interest in buying America's largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods. She wonders what I think about all that. Here's the interview:

Kat: Tom Philpott of Grist reported on Friday that a Chinese company called Cofco--a state-owned food-and-agribiz giant--is thinking of buying out U.S. owned Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer, "at a significant premium to its share price."

Of course, that was before the shit hit the spam. Now, we're suddenly facing a swine flu outbreak, which Philpott aptly describes as "a nasty mash-up of swine, avian, and human viruses. As Philpott subsequently reported on Saturday, the Mexican health agency IMSS suspects the outbreak may be linked to the clouds of flies that thrive in the manure lagoons of the Smithfield-owned industrial hog operations in Vera Cruz, where the swine flu was first detected.

With the World Health Organization warning of a prospective global pandemic, I'm not sure that Cofco is going to be so eager to acquire Smithfield. But supposing they were, do you think it's a good idea to have the largest industrial hog operation in the world run by the Chinese government?

Dr. Marion Nestle: Whoa. Let's not be too xenophobic about China. China already owns vast amounts of American real estate, holds vast amounts of American debt, and produces vast amounts of the food we eat--globalization in all its glory. We can no longer survive without China so we better figure out quickly how to make this marriage work.

We also better figure out how to make our food production system more sustainable and less harmful to farm animals, the environment, farm workers, and consumers. I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released its report last April. Our report fully documented how CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) are not nice to animals; pollute air, soil, and water; turn communities into garbage dumps; and promote transmission of nasty--and often antibiotic-resistant--microbial diseases to farm workers, community residents, and everyone else.

This time, it's swine flu, a viral disease. I can't tell from the reports whether a Smithfield CAFO in Mexico really is responsible for transmission of this new flu virus from pigs to people, but one thing is clear: Smithfield is in big trouble financially.

This means it is for sale to the highest bidder. Our investment system is not in the business of making ethical or moral judgments about such things. Investors are unlikely to care who the highest bidder might be as long as the bid is high.

Why China might want to buy Smithfield is an entirely separate question. Its pork operations are still small relative to ours and maybe its pork producers want to learn how to do things bigger. Whatever they do, they will have to follow U.S. rules and regulations. And that is a problem. As the Pew Commission report made clear, we have laws on the books that govern production and emission standards in CAFOs; it's just that nobody bothers to enforce them. Somebody needs to, whether the owners are Chinese or American. Otherwise, this won't be the last of the swine flu scares

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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