Swine Flu and CAFOs?

Blogs call for more coverage; MSM hesitant

In the search for the swine flu outbreak’s “ground zero,” blogs have called upon mainstream media to investigate the potential role of large factory farms in breeding and spreading the virus.

Major news outlets have tentatively begun to do just that over the last two days. Reports have focused on the town of La Gloria, Mexico, where the first known victim was identified. (He has since recovered.) La Gloria is located close to a million-pig farm, Granjas Carroll, which is partly owned by Smithfield Foods, an American company that is the world’s largest producer and processor of pork products.

So far, however, there is no evidence of a direct connection between the farm and the swine flu virus. But there are reasons to both suspect and doubt that such a connection exists, and this has led to sporadic arguments among reporters covering the outbreak about the line between asking tough questions and jumping to conclusions.

The first blogger to implicate industrial hog farms was Grist’s food editor, Tom Philpott, in a Saturday post headlined, “Swine-flu outbreak could be linked to Smithfield factory farms.” Philpott cited a swine-flu timeline posted by the blog Biosurveillance, as well as articles in the Mexican newspapers La Marcha and La Jornada, which had reported that residents of La Gloria suspected the Granjas Carroll farm of spreading sickness via “clouds of flies” that travelled between the two. Philpott’s assessment was that:

[T]he possible link to Smithfield has not been reported in the U.S. press. Searches of Google News and the websites of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal all came up empty. … I’ll be in touch with contacts in Mexico as this story develops —and I’ll be curious to see whether the U.S. media explores the link with Smithfield’s Mexico operation.

At The Huffington Post on Sunday, freelance reporter David Kirby commented on the recent spread of industrial-scale hog farms, or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in Mexico, suggesting that:

U.S. and Mexican epidemiologists and veterinarians will surely want to take swine samples from Mexican CAFOs and examine them for the newly discovered influenza strain (No one knows exactly how long it has been in circulation). And though it is too early to know if this new virus mutated and incubated on Mexican hog CAFOs, the industrialized facilities unquestionably belong on the list of suspects.

“This should be one of the big second-day stories of this remarkable news event,” argued Tom Yulsman at the Center for Environmental Journalism on Tuesday, in a blog post headlined, “What mainstream media aren’t telling you about the swine flu outbreak.” Yulsman pointed to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which found that “Animals in such close confinement, along with some of the feed and animal management methods employed in the system, increase pathogen risks and magnify opportunities for transmission from animals to humans.”

Mainstream media granted Philpott and Yulsman’s wish for more coverage almost as soon as they’d made it. Major outlets have been far more skeptical and restrained in their reporting about the CAFO hypothesis, however. The reason is that, so far, authorities have yet to find an infected pig in Mexico, let alone at the Granjas Carroll farm. None of the pig farm’s workers appears to be sick, either.

The result is that most mainstream news articles—such as those in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal—have included only a paragraph or two about Granjas Carroll in larger stories about La Gloria being a prime candidate for the flu outbreak’s origin. The Associated Press and CNN’s Sanjay Gupta visited Granjas Carroll, but only the former got in.

These reports could do little more than state the facts, however. For now, the only people who are “convinced” that the CAFO is at fault are the residents of La Gloria. Most articles printed the canned statement from Smithfield and the Mexican government, saying that they have “found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico.” That statement, of course, belies the fact that it is unclear whether or not anybody has actually tested the pigs and workers at Granjas Carroll. At CNN, Gupta reported that Smithfield and the Mexican Department of Agriculture told him they had, in fact, done testing, which had come back negative. Even if they have tested, however, it is clear that independent verification is needed. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has sent an emergency response team to the area, but there is still no word about what it has found.

There have been a few exceptions to the restrained coverage in mainstream news outlets (mostly among British publications, curiously enough). The Times of London and The Independent ran articles that themselves were not substantially different from others. Their respective headlines, however—“Mexico outbreak traced to ‘manure lagoons’ at pig farm” and “For La Gloria, the stench of blame is from pig factories”—were sensationalistic and grossly misleading.

The Guardian has run two op-eds on the subject. One, by a University of California history professor, made the rash statement in its lede that, “The Mexican swine flu, a genetic chimera probably conceived in the faecal mire of an industrial pigsty, suddenly threatens to give the whole world a fever.” The other, by a member of the European Parliament, called for more research and quoted the director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the U.S. Humane Society saying that the first triple-hybrid swine flu virus (as the one responsible for the current outbreak appears to be) emerged at a North Carolina factory farm in 1998.

Clearly, it is too early to make bold pronouncements about CAFOs’ role in abetting the epidemic that has now spread to seven countries. As a front-page article in The New York Times on Wednesday pointed out, even “La Gloria may not, in the end, be the source of anything.” And Yulsman, who originally chided the press for ignoring factory farms, wrote a follow-up post criticizing CNN’s Headline News for hyping the threat they pose. Many worry that jumping to conclusions can lead to panic or incite unnecessary and costly control measures. (Take, for example, Egypt’s decision to slaughter all of the country’s 300,000 pigs despite no confirmed cases there, or an article in The Washington Post about the threat to the global economy.)

That said, now is the perfect time for journalists to begin investigating CAFOs in a responsible fashion. That means doing things a little differently than the early blog posts, which tended to have a finger-pointing tone, did not deliver much context about evidence and controlling for alternative hypotheses, and did not call experts to test their theories.

Those bloggers deserve credit for calling the press into action, however, for they obviously succeeded. It’s a fine line between asking tough questions and jumping to conclusions, and somebody has to walk it.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.