How did flu outbreak start?

Close confinement of animals increases the risk of diseases spreading.

The outbreak of swine flu in Mexico and now the U.S. has inspired some hysteria as well as some scoffing by anti-alarmists who remember Gerald Ford's over-the-top response to swine flu in the 1970s. Right now, with 149 deaths in Mexico, 40 cases confirmed here, and more showing up around the globe, it's still not clear whether the "potential pandemic" cited by the World Health Organization is something we really need to start worrying about, or whether this situation will wind up relatively small-scale.

One of the key talking points on which some people still seem to be unclear is that you don't get swine flu by eating pork. This is literally true - the disease is being spread worldwide by human-to-human contact - but the scourge of swine flu may be caused, if indirectly, by the eating of pork.

Pig-based factory farms have long been noted for the potentially toxic effects they can have on their neighbors (see this 2006 Rolling Stone investigation into problems, environmental and otherwise, with the enormous manure pits of these "farms"). A Huffington Post article by David Kirby reports that some lawmakers in Mexico are pointing the finger of blame at large-scale hog and poultry operations -"'breeding grounds' of infection that are making people sick and fueling the pandemic." Kirby notes that Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of US hog giant Smithfield Foods, has a huge facility near the town of La Gloria, and that the local paper is claiming the fecal 'lagoons' are responsible for "an epidemic of respiratory infections in the town."

Smithfield says it has not found any swine flu on its premises, but the state legislature of Veracruz has demanded that Granjas Carroll turn over "all documents and environmental certifications on its three massive waste lagoons" as part of its investigation into the cause of the outbreak.

Historically speaking, it would not be out of the ordinary for the disease to jump to humans from food animals - indeed, as I pointed out in this 2003 op-ed,that's how many of our deadliest diseases have originated, including tuberculosis, SARS, HIV, and, of course, 'Mad Cow' disease. Even the 1918 flu pandemic was found, just over 10 years ago,to have originated in pigs being raised for food.

The exact cause of this outbreak and its eventual impact on human health are still up in the air as of this writing. What we do know is that the continued funding of factory farms (by way of meat purchases) keeps the probability high of a future outbreak of disease spread by food animals in close confinement.

UPDATE 4/28: Here are a couple of high-profile takes on the meat industry connection from CNN Headline News (in which the anchor expresses incredulity that the mainstream media is ignoring this angle) and Britain's The Guardian.