The Lesson of Swine Flu

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Photo Courtesy of the Animal Welfare Institute

Last Thursday the World Health Organization declared the first flu pandemic in 41 years, after swine flu (H1N1) was found in 74 countries, infecting nearly 29,000 people so far. Even with the use of modern antiviral drugs where they are available, a severe flu pandemic could kill over 100 million people. The WHO statement said nothing about the current epidemic's underlying causes, which are undeniably complex. But what is clear is that the danger of such pandemics has been exacerbated by the industrialization of animal farming.

The first known victim of the current swine flu outbreak was a young boy in Vera Cruz, Mexico living near an industrial hog operation. The massive 56,000-sow facility is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the US-based meat company. Local residents, who say they've suffered from rampant respiratory ailments for years, believe that the flu virus originated at the Smithfield facility, which continually ventilates its air to the community and stores hundreds of millions of gallons of liquefied pig manure. There has been no definitive evidence of that link, however, and pork trade associations vociferously assert that there is neither a connection to the Smithfield operation nor to hog production generally.

But whether or not a direct link to the Smithfield facility is ever established, this pandemic reminds us that the current method of raising farm animals is fraught with risks to human health. In 1998, a virus that combined strains of human, swine, and bird flu was discovered in pigs at industrial operations in North Carolina. It rapidly mutated, or "reassorted," as it moved from pig to pig and from herd to herd. Within months, the hybrid virus was showing up in hog operations throughout the United States.

Intensive farming systems make industrial poultry and swine operations into breeding grounds for a host of perilous diseases.

By early 1999, blood samples of pigs from 23 states showed that 20.5 percent had been exposed, according to Dr. Michael Greger, author of the book Bird Flu. "It is from this pool of viruses," Greger writes, "that the current swine flu threat derives three-quarters of its genetic material." Dr. Robert Webster, a leading flu expert and a director of the WHO Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds, says that this "triple reassortment virus" is the likely precursor to the swine flu that is now sweeping the globe.

Pigs in the United States have become "an increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential," according to Dr. Richard Webby, also a director of the WHO Collaborating Center. One in five US pig workers now shows antibodies to H1N1, showing they have been exposed to the virus.

This is to be expected. My husband and I, as livestock ranchers ourselves and advocates of reform in industrial farming, have visited dozens of industrial animal operations. We've seen commercial swine operations with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of pigs. And we've visited chicken operations with hundreds of thousands or millions of birds. These are typical operations. Extreme crowding and barren surroundings stress the animals, rendering them effective disease vehicles and making their environments conducive to the formation of new diseases. Lack of genetic diversity within flocks and herds renders them more susceptible to illnesses. Large populations of flies and insects aid in disease transmission.

"Industrial farm animal production facilities that house large numbers of animals in very close quarters can be a source of new or more infectious agents," the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production warned in April 2008. Ellen Silbergeld, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says of industrial animal operations, "For many years, there's been a great deal of concern about their potential contribution to the evolution and spread of newly emerging diseases."

Dr. Silbergeld identifies three primary factors: crowding, ventilation systems that spread pathogens to the surrounding environment, and massive volumes of manure. It is "astounding," she says, that there are no requirements for any waste treatment applied to these huge animal operations--as, of course, there are for human sewage.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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