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It’s been 15 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement, and while debate still rages over the wisdom of the arrangement, the recent swine flu outbreak threatens to bring the pact under sharp criticism. Mounting evidence is pointing to a US-owned industrial pig farm as a likely source of the swine flu virus. The farm is one of many factory farms that set up shop in Mexico after NAFTA rearranged the laws to make such moves more profitable. Many experts have been warning for years about the potential for a swine flu pandemic to arise out of the conditions present in industrial pig farms.

Story Transcript

Swine flu and free trade
Producer: Jesse Freeston

JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: As worries of an international flu pandemic spread throughout the globe, the World Health Organization has yet to confirm the source of the outbreak. However, evidence is mounting that the virus originates from an industrial pig farm in the central Mexican state of Veracruz. Mexican media outlets were reporting in early April on the outbreak of the mysterious respiratory infection. As early as April 6, the national daily, La Hornada, wrote that the outbreak had infected more than 300 residents of the town of La Gloria. The article quoted municipal and national authorities tracing the virus to a massive feces lagoon at a factory farm operated by Granjas Carroll, 50 percent of which is owned by US megacorporation Smithfield, the world’s largest producer of pork. Mexico’s federal government has stated that the factory is not to blame, and Smithfield maintains that none of its employees nor pigs have shown any signs of infection. The earliest confirmed case of the virus, a four-year-old boy, lives next to the factory farm in question. Should the source indeed turn out to be this or any other industrial pig farm, it must be noted that many were waving warning flags years in advance. Take this award-winning short film from 2003, The Meatrix.


Courtesy: Sustainable Table

BULL: Have you heard of the Meatrix?

PIG: The Meatrix?

BULL: Do you want to know what it is?

PIG: Okay.

BULL: The Meatrix is all around you, Neo. It is the story we tell ourselves about where meat and animal products come from. This family farm is a fantasy. Take the blue pill and stay here in the fantasy. Take the red pill and I’ll show you the truth. In the mid-20th century, greedy agriculture corporations began modifying sustainable family farming to maximize their profits at great cost to both humans and animals. Factory farming was born. Animals are packed as closely together as possible. Most never see sunlight, touch ground, or get fresh air. Many can’t even turn around. These cruel conditions cause fights and disease amongst the animals. And they started adding a constant dosage of antibiotics to their feed, just to keep these poor wretches alive. This overuse of antibiotics breeds superstrains of resistant, disease-causing germs. Every day we get closer to an epidemic that cannot be stopped.


FREESTON: Also in 2003, Bernice Weuthrich published an article in the journal Science which claims that “Changes on the farm may be fostering the evolution of the swine flu virus—and if a dangerous new strain crosses back into humans, it could have deadly consequences.” (March 7, 2003)

BERNICE WUETHRICH, SCIENTIST WRITER: It was published simultaneously to the first stirrings of the avian flu outbreak, and I believe that that global health emergency probably somewhat eclipsed the ability of the article to have a significant impact. Pigs have molecular receptors for both avian virus and human influenza virus—and, of course, their own viruses. So that means that viruses that are common in all three species have an opportunity to meet and mix inside pigs. And it’s the swapping of genes, and genetic segments, even, which gives the opportunity for dangerous new viruses to arise. Veterinarians and others have noted a change in swine flu on US pig farms. And what had happened is that from having been very stable, it had started to mutate, and they were finding more and more mutations on these very large pig farms. And the speculation was that the changes, the rapidity of the new mutations, could be due to the fact that, one, pig farming had become much more concentrated, so you would have, you know, 500,000 pigs under one roof, you know, instead of smaller operations, which could lead to more rapid spread and mutation as it spread. And the other thinking was that perhaps also new was widespread vaccination of pigs, and that the vaccination could be having an impact in kind of forcing viral evolution.

FREESTON: The company at the center of the investigation, Granjas Carroll, opened operations in 1994, immediately after North American Free Trade Agreement entered into effect, an agreement that provided numerous incentives for foreign corporations to invest in Mexico.

Courtesy: the University of Virginia
December 8, 1993

BILL CLINTON, FORUS PRESIDENT: I believe we have made a decision now that will permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace. We are on the verge of a global economic expansion that is sparked by the fact that the United States at this critical moment decided that we would compete, not retreat. In a few moments, I will sign the North American Free Trade Act into law.

FREESTON: Robert Wallace was on Democracy Now! to explain how free trade facilitated the expansion of industrial pig farming in Mexico.

Courtesy: Democracy Now!
April 29, 2009

ROBERT WALLACE, VISITING PROFESSOR, UNIV. OF MINNESOTA: The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993, instituted in 1994, and it has had a subsequent effect on how poultry and pigs are raised in Mexico. So from that time, the pattern I just described, small farmers had to either bulk up in terms of acquiring the farms around them, acquiring the pigs around them, or had to sell out to agribusinesses that were coming in. So the Smithfield subsidiary that is now being accused of being the possible plant of origin for this H1N1 is a subsidiary of an outside corporation.

FREESTON: Granjas Carroll currently operates 16 factory-style pig farms in the Veracruz region, producing 1 million pigs a year. Local residents have been protesting the environmental and public health effects of these operations for years. Wuethrich believes that the development of swine flu serves as a demonstration of the relationship between the challenges of ensuring public health and meeting global food needs.

WUETHRICH: So you’ve got malnutrition in developing countries, where people are more susceptible to disease. You’ve got situations where farmers don’t even have access to basic farm inputs like fertilizer and good seeds, and they are able to produce barely enough to survive. There are systemic problems that need to be addressed in terms of developing public health infrastructure and developing sustainable agriculture practices that actually can feed a billion hungry people around the world. It’s no joke—it’s a billion hungry people.

FREESTON: In many ways, the current situation is defined as much by what we don’t know as what we do.

WUETHRICH: What I would hope that the news media would not do is to sensationalize this, is to spread panic or fear about it. I don’t think 24-7 coverage necessarily helps. It can spread panic, and it also creates the illusion that we can know something important and valuable that’s new every minute of every day. And we can’t. You know, it just takes time to figure out what’s going on, how to solve it, what measures are put in place.

FREESTON: In a world of globalized industrial food production, where corporate negligence can cross borders as easily as viruses, the media’s focus on Mexico as the location of the outbreak could induce its own harmful symptoms.

WALLACE: The main concern one has to have in this context is that as you talk about quarantining sectors of Mexico or quarantining populations or countries, there is a concern that they would also want to then quarantine immigrants, and that immigrants would now have to bear the burden of being somehow not just undocumented but also unhealthy and purveyors of illness and of some kind of bacteria. And that has been a tremendous concern for many people who have seen how immigrants have in the past been scapegoated. And there is the concern about xenophobia and, again, racism in this context.

FREESTON: As authorities scramble to produce treatments and inoculations for swine flu, one fact is being skipped over, that the world is already in the middle of several pandemics, including malaria, which has spread to 109 countries—a preventable and curable disease. Last year, malaria claimed more than 1 million lives, including over 2,000 children every day.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bernice Wuethrich is a scientific communications expert and freelance science writer, having contributed regularly to journals such as Science, New Scientist, Discover, and others. She worked previously in exhibit development at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.