Among the isolated but alarming outbreaks around the world of swine flu cases in the late days of April 2009, the only fatalities confirmed were in Mexico and the neighboring U.S. border state of Texas. With 727 confirmed domestic cases and counting, Mexico”s novel virus strain quickly became the top news issue in both national and international forums. Authorities” declaration of an "epidemic" and then an "imminent pandemic" fueled an environmental health craze of staggering socio-economic impact in Mexico, weighing heavily on top of existing fiscal woes and survivors” heartbreak over lost loved ones.

Carroll Farms is only one of dozens of major foreign-owned factory
farms in states all around Mexico. Photo:

Emblematic of the calamity was the shut-down of Mexico”s venerated San Marcos Fair, the oldest, largest, and longest-lasting event of its type. When it was barely into its first of a customary three-week run, officials advised the public to stay away from pigs and crowds, both trademarks of the confab in the central city of Aguascalientes. The suspension was a turn of the cards inconceivable to many locals and visitors to the metropolis of more than 500,000 people. Police and soldiers closed stands then escorted fairgoers away from the fairgrounds. The annual climax of cultural ardor for millions of post-Lenten merry-makers was undercut along with expectations for millions of dollars from its round-the-clock livestock auctions, rodeos, gaming, vending, bull and cock fighting, contests, music, dance, arts, entertainment, and debauchery.

In Mexico City, the government allowed private workplaces to remain open but closed all schools, eating establishments (except for take-out orders), public institutions such as museums, and finally even government offices. More than 500 mass meetings and hundreds of smaller ones were postponed. The national sport of soccer was played on a field off-limits to spectators.

With officials warning against travel and promoting the use of surgical masks to prevent the spread of the viral disease, the devastating effects range from entertainment business losses—reportedly $57 million a day in the capital—to cessation nationwide of the traditional greeting kiss on the cheek. More than fever and coughs, fear and tension gripped residents across the country.

Unanswerable questions swirled around almost every aspect of the first major appearance of this virus strain, officially classified as a recent outgrowth of the H1N1 virus that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had first documented in 1988.

  • Why had the strain killed more people in Mexico than other countries where it has been detected?
  • Were poor nutrition, dense population, and poverty to blame?
  • How, where, and when did this new twist on an old sickness gets its start?
  • Did the vector originate at the industrial hog farms of the U.S. Smithfield”s subsidiary in the southeastern state of Veracruz, and if so why?
  • With the confirmed deaths from the strain only numbering 26, why was this a big deal compared to the 36,000 who die every year from other strains in the United States alone?
  • Was the response to the Mexican swine flu outbreaks delayed due to U.S. President Barack Obama”s coinciding visit to Mexico City?
  • Was President Felipe Calderon”s declaration of a national alert a de facto Homeland Security decree in its broad-brush abridgements of protections for privacy and civil liberties, waiving search-warrant requirements and cancelling travelers” rights to move about freely?
  • Was the fanfare a prelude to production of more antidotes and a new vaccine for the sake of pharmaceutical companies” profits?

The possibilities for investigative journalism are seemingly endless. Nobody has the answers—from the Mexican Health Secretariat, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to the World Health Organization (WHO), to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

But one thing is certain:

Raised on a Mexican pole, the red flag of a potential pandemic was soon flying high over a battle front on which health experts have long wanted the international community to engage.

In response to the threat of the H1N1 strain, the WHO directed UN member nations to escalate their preparedness level for a pandemic—an epidemic of new infectious disease that spreads beyond national boundaries—from a Phase 4 to a Phase 5. WHO”s international health regulations dating back to 2005 address pandemics” potential, declaring: "The world requires a global system that can rapidly identify and contain public health emergencies and reduce unneeded panic and disruption of trade, travel, and society in general." They call for "an integrated global alert and response system for epidemics and other public health emergencies based on strong national public health systems and online casino capacity and an effective international system for coordinated response."

Much remains to be done to meet those goals. In the meantime an ounce of prevention could be worth a pound of preparedness.

While the reaction to the new flu has put the country in a virtual state of siege comparable to the United States” famed 9-11 following the outbreak of terrorist attacks there, the International Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) may be giving a boost to prevention efforts by its investigation into factory farming of pigs in Mexico.

It reportedly sent a team to do field checks, almost a month after the concerns arose about flu cases near Smithfield”s Granjas Carroll. That wasn”t the first time the FAO focused on Mexico”s pig pens. As far back as 2000, its experts launched a pork project in central Mexico to study the effects of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the environment. This led to a carbon trading program that allowed Mexican businesses to profit on trade of carbon credits based on reductions of methane greenhouse gas emissions obtained from covering the excrement ponds at the hog lots, under the Kyoto Protocol”s Clean Development Mechanism. With an expanding population of more than 17.5 million pigs in the feedlots back then, a research project sponsored by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation noted: "The proper handling of this large quantity of CAFO animal waste is critical to protecting human health and the environment."

That doesn”t mean that just because the latest public health threat is called swine flu it”s a reason to go and slaughter all the hogs in a country, as Egypt mistakenly vowed to do with its 300,000 innocent porkers. Last time something like that happened, it led to violent religious riots and more death than the flu itself might have caused. Besides, among the millions of industrial feedlot piggies and employees in Mexico, all those tested to date have proven free of the virus strain. The FAO and the WHO even decided to stop using the name swine flu.

Killing the pigs is like killing the messenger. But it raised the justifiable concern that the cramped and filthy conditions of the CAFOs are not conducive to healthy populations—of either people or pigs. Unbeknownst to many, Carroll Farms is only one of dozens of major foreign-owned factory farms in states all around Mexico that merit scrutiny. Sonora, Guadalajara, and Queretaro are among the big pig producing states. The model is also prevalent nationwide in chicken and egg farming.

Precautionary measures to both prevent and prepare for epidemics should include analysis of the international trade model of commercial agriculture that promotes CAFOs. It might lead to more economically equitable and environmentally friendly trade practices in food production. Hopefully that topic will be addressed further as a result of the swine flu scare.