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To find the link between swine flu and actual pigs, check the water

To find the link between swine flu and actual pigs, check the water

Picture of William Heisel

Tom Philpott, food editor for Grist, has been calling for an investigation into the connection between H1N1, or swine flu, and actual swine. More specifically, he has been putting the blame on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs, a term that should be familiar to anyone who has read some of the recent slew of "food is scary" books. Referencing a recent story by David Brown in The Washington Post, Philpott writes:

Well, maybe I'm being alarmist. Maybe there's no rational reason to suspect that the practice of confining thousands of animals into buildings over their own waste gives novel viruses a wonderful habitat in which to flow from host to host, mutate, and jump species to humans. Maybe the industry's much ballyhooed safety efforts, in which hog confinements are treated like biosecurity time bombs, are successfully keeping pigs and the workers who watch over them from swapping virus strains.

But that's simply not the case, according to the Post piece. Are CAFO conditions keeping swine free of swine flu? No. "A survey done in 2006 found that 58 percent of pig farms had at least one animal with antibodies to influenza," the Post reports. Moreover, there have been several instances of swine herds testing positive for the current novel strain.

I have visited CAFOs for dairy cattle and seen dead cows being dragged behind a tractor to a rendering machine. It's the reason I try to avoid milk that doesn't have a dozen disclaimers on the label to this day. (No rBGH. No rBST. No antibiotics.) But being visually horrified by the way animals are treated doesn't necessarily mean that the practices should be banned, right? After all, these animals are primarily being fattened for eventual slaughter. Some may have slightly better lives than others, but no cow or pig that is headed to the grocery store has spent any time wandering the wild. Even on "organic" dairy farms, cows are kept pregnant nearly year round and milked at least three, sometimes four, times a day. That's certainly not "Nature's Way."

So how do we find out if Philpott has a point?

Reporters in pig country should get out their test tubes.

When reporting on industrial dairies, my coauthor Jennifer Hieger, who's now my wife, and I worked with a local irrigation district to obtain water quality data downstream from the dairies. The district was looking to see if E. coli and other nasty bugs were surviving in large enough concentrations to be bad for people living downstream - or the salmon swimming upstream. Yes, indeed.

I wrote a few months ago about how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did its own testing to find the extent of leeching of bisphenol A in "microwave safe" product, and I talked with Mark Katches, who at the time was the paper's deputy managing editor for projects, about his work leading teams that have tested for other stories.

There's no reason a media outlet couldn't find some pig farms and test for traces of swine flu. To make the story bullet-proof, I recommend a few things:

1. Work with microbiologists, epidemiologists and agricultural scientists to develop a testing protocol that will pass muster with critics. In 2008, the CDC published a paper in its journal Emerging Infectious Diseases that detailed its findings of bird flu virus in ponds, mud and plants.

2. Find a farm that is far enough upstream from other homes and buildings to avoid confusion about where the flu virus is coming from.

3. Take tests on dry days, rainy days and in-between days, if possible.

4. If there are no easily accessible water supplies nearby, find a way to test the surrounding soil.

5. Test near local slaughterhouses, butcher shops or anywhere the pigs might be parceled out.

6. Upon finding infected samples, test methods for killing the virus. The New York Times did this for its recent piece about E. coli and beef and was able to show that, contrary to widely accepted protocols, E. coli was not killed simply by cooking the meat thoroughly.

Anyone with other tips should post a comment on the site. As my former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Jerry Hirsch, used to say, "People love to read about food." You need to be a registered member of Center for Health Journalism Digital to leave a comment, so if you haven't joined yet, click here.It's easy, quick and free. You can follow us on Twitter, too, @ReportingHealth.

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