We all know the winter holiday routine well. Starting at Thanksgiving and continuing well into January, kids come home from school, families and relatives travel and visit, airlines are busy, and viruses have a heyday. Sniffle, cough, sneeze, we’re all miserable with colds and the flu. These germs rely on the movement and congregation of people to spread and multiply during a season when we’re primarily stuck indoors with each other due to inclement weather.
The same is true for the care of livestock. Taking animals to the state or county fair is an easy place to pick up a not-so-friendly bug from another farmer’s place, with animals mingling in the show ring and little children petting first one animal and then the next. Sale barns, feed lots, and other crowded, high-animal-volume spaces are ripe for spreading diseases. But one of the worst offenders is the practice of CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations).
In the name of efficiency and keeping consumer prices low, long polebarn structures crammed with caged hogs, chickens, turkeys, and others factory produce the bulk of supermarket meats. The animals living inside are under continual stress from overcrowded and cramped conditions, which leaves them vulnerable to illness. The meat industry has combated this issue by including antibiotics in feed rations. Yet, while this “maintenance” level of antibiotics may be helping to prevent some diseases in CAFOs and increase weight gain by 3%, it has also spawned an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria that plagues the livestock and the human healthcare system.
But all the antibiotics in the world cannot make a dent in a virus outbreak, since viruses are not actually living organisms. Most of these lethal viruses have been spreading globally from Asia, where cramped and comingled quarters for raising large numbers of pigs and chickens together have been common practice for centuries. Avian flu, pig flu, and others have been news-breaking viruses that have affected the lives of people as well as livestock.
The latest superbug to come from the Asian continent is PEDv (Porcine Endemic Diarrhea virus), which is currently devastating the pork industry. Easily carried via manure on shoes, coats, and trucks, its virility can take over a porcine CAFO very quickly. Especially harmful to young piglets, the virus causes the little creatures to vomit and have diarrhea resulting in dehydration with a 100% mortality rate. Currently, somewhere between four and six million piglets in America and Canada have been lost to PEDv, which has now been deemed a “mandatory reportable” disease, with outbreaks noted in 23 states.
Wisconsin already has reports of 8 outbreaks of PEDv, causing the state veterinarian to cancel all hog weigh-ins and all showing of hogs at fairs except for “terminal shows” (hogs being shown that will go directly to the butcher and not return to the farm). Instructions for sanitizing loading trucks and feed trucks have been mailed to all registered Wisconsin farms listed as raising pigs.
Yet another germ vector leading to the spread of PEDv has been detected, which is the use of animal protein byproducts in feed. There are strict rules because of the threat of Mad Cow Disease (in cattle) and Scrapies (in sheep) that byproducts of ruminants cannot be fed back to ruminants, but there is no such legislature that prevents porcine byproducts from being fed back to pigs. Dried hog plasma, collected from the cleanup of the kill floor in slaughter houses, is a common dietary supplement for piglets in factory farms. While the connection hasn’t been firmly established, the link between piglet outbreaks and this potentially contaminated protein addition is being examined.
While a vaccine is being fast-tracked by industry and university scientists, there still is no cure or prevention other than biosecurity measures. In desperation to try to build herd immunity, some veterinarians are instructing their clients to grind the dead piglets and feed them back to the mothers, despite the illegal state of this practice. The situation, on a whole, has become quite desperate, with expected shortages of fall pigs and rising market prices.
But what the agricultural newspapers are not sharing with their readers is that super-bug diseases like PEDv are directly correlated with the faults in our livestock system. Pigs, in their natural state, are meant to live outside, in small groups, with plenty of space to roam and forage. Their diet should be diverse, but feeding ground or dried body parts or fluids from their own species is simply asking for trouble. Cramming animals together in environments where, should the electricity to the high-powered fans be interrupted, the creatures suffocate in their own ammonia in less than an hour—this is not responsible, naturalistic practice.
If we want to make a difference in the germ concerns that plague our food industry, legislating riparian areas as potential contaminant sources from wildlife is not going to make a difference. And the conglomerate corporations that control CAFO production across the country are too big and powerful for most legislative bodies to condemn. It will therefore be up to the public to make an impact on the system by actively choosing where their food comes from by voting with their dollar.
If enough people choose to buy pork from small, outdoor, sustainably minded hog farmers, then there will be increasingly less demand for confinement pork. Those operations are entirely run with profit and tax breaks in mind, and if they can’t make it, then they will see no reason to expand their reign of animal terror. Likewise, by knowing your farmer and her practices, you can have greater confidence in the health and wholesomeness of what you’re eating, as well as its environmental impacts.
While outbreaks like PEDv might not hit the headlines outside of the world of agriculture (sometimes they just don’t want the public to know these things), it’s important as enlightened eaters to know the dark underbelly of the agribusiness system. This is real, and it’s very scary. And it’s our job to be informed and proactive in our response. Do you know where your pork comes from? I’m glad that I get to know mine every day, out behind my own house. This, to me, is real food security. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com