RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Stop Bailing Out Big Pig

Let’s hear it for the American media. Even after the pork industry begged for a name change from “swine flu” to “H1N1,” news reporters kept the story simple. The World Health Organization used the phrase “swine flu” in its first briefing, and the media stuck with it. The pork industry hollered that the public would be confused and think they could catch flu from eating pork.

A few lackies attempted to re-name it the Mexican flu or (my favorite) NAFTA flu. Mexico calls it simply, “la epidemia” which means “the epidemic.” Because in Mexico, they’re taking it seriously.

We’re not confused. The giant hog confinements are not raising hogs in a safe way. If they’re not spawning flu, they’re spawning antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as MRSA. The pork demand is strong as ever, but we’re looking for meats raised in safe, sustainable ways on family farms. And, yes, we know we should cook it properly and wash our hands. Thanks for your concern.

But the industry is getting more bailouts, claiming that the outbreak caused producers to lose nearly $8.4 million a day due to declining demand for pork.

Bottom line: The system has never made money. Smithfield has lived on government handouts since it was first founded. In 2008, they blamed their first-quarter loss of $12.6 million on the high price of corn due to the ethanol industry, another industrial shell game. Now they’re blaming swine flu.

And, even worse, taxpayers are still guaranteeing loans to build new confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and money to rehabilitate old ones. CAFOs are metal buildings the size of football fields, crammed with animals being raised for food.

Government-backed loans to build CAFOs were suspended by the Clinton administration in 1999, then reinstated as the first USDA act by the Bush administration. Another program, EQIP, that would have helped small farmers improve their environmental programs, was hijacked under Bush to fund improvements for CAFOs.

Smithfield owns over 1,000,000 sows (mother hogs), controlling 20% of US hog production. They own enough slaughterhouses to corner 31% of pork packing. In much of the United States, and in north Missouri, they own 100% of the hog business because there are no other markets available to farmers. This is the system being exported around the world, to China, Canada, Poland, Veracruz.

Where they own 100% of the hog business, they own 100% of the job market, the real estate market and, ultimately, the government. The system takes huge inputs of grain, water and chemicals, and puts out huge amounts of pork, driving down prices for the real farmers. And the real farmers don’t get government bailouts.

Just after the first flu cases were reported, TV’s Nightline pinned the source on a CAFO near Veracruz. That report looked for the earliest case of the disease and found it. The first sick person was a young boy living in a village near a facility owned by Smithfield. Many of his neighbors had also been sick.

The villagers reported the same concerns that neighbors around the world have reported: CAFOs stink. The operators pump thousands of gallons of feces-polluted water into a big cesspool and let it sit. We don’t know if it leaks out. We don’t know if it is applied to the fields and runs into the ditches. We’re worried about our water. We don’t want to work there. It’s filthy and disease-ridden.

These are not farms. These are deserts where animals are raised with no quality of life, tended by people who are trapped into jobs. Find a town dominated by this industry and you’ll find people without advocates—undocumented immigrants and single moms—in the worst jobs on the planet.

Even though the current version of the flu is mild, the pork-raising system is custom-made to breed disease variations. An early outbreak in Canadian hogs has been blamed on contact with a worker who had been in Mexico. Of course, there has been denial from Smithfield, published in the Wall Street Journal, that they did the tests and their hogs do not have the virus.

Well, the Wall Street Journal hasn’t ever led us wrong before, have they?

The World Health Organization reports cases in 33 nations and deaths in Mexico, The US, Canada and Costa Rica, and say that the severity of a virus depends on the population’s immunity, health-care system and prevalence of other diseases. So, right now, it looks like Americans are safe from this version of swine flu.

Or not.

In the meantime, it’s crucial that we re-build safe animal agriculture, and this is something everyone can do. Vote with your dollars and starve the stupidity. Find producers that raise food locally and ask how they raise it. Cornell University released a study that said the nation can save as much oil by buying local as we could by eliminating our cars. Buying local saves energy and communities.

Then, tell your lawmakers, present and future, local and federal, that we need policy to support local production and access in your neighborhood.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2009

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