THE Year of The Pig - Flu

pigs dying from African swine flu in China

It is the Year of the Pig in the Chinese zodiac.  The pig symbolises abundance, good luck and fortune yet for the pigs themselves, 2019 is not looking very optimistic, especially not in China. China is “home”to half the world’s pig population, processing, (slaughtering) over 700 million pigs per year. 

Of these 700 million, only 1.6 million are exported, which shows the high demand the 1 billion-strong country has for pork, its preferred meat. As the middle class grows in China, along with the population, so does the demand for pork. 

To be able to supply this obscene amount of meat, it requires growing this huge number of living beings. In recent years China has adopted the American industrial way of raising them in concentrated farms; factory farms. Smithfield Foods Inc., currently the world’s biggest pork company with over $15 billion of annual revenue, was bought by China’s WH Group in 2013 from its American owners for $4.7 billion. It does pigs like it was manufacturing parts of a car. 

Where China used to rely on backyard pens, growing numerous different species of local pigs that were preferred for the traditional dishes, more and more it is now relying on the specific breed of pig that has been genetically bred to grow the biggest at the quickest rate. These native pigs are quickly vanishing. Some already, like the Longyou black and Ding county, have disappeared. Others, such as the Bama from Guangxi province, the Wujin from the mountainous regions and the Bamei from Yunnan are all endangered. The problem is when you destroy the biodiversity in animals and then keep tens of thousands of them in crowded spaces, diseases can spread easily. These animals are also pumped so full of antibiotics they become antibiotic-resistant, which makes factory farms a breeding ground for new strains of dangerous bacteria and viruses or easily spreadable places for old ones. 

When an epidemic hits, they are incredibly vulnerable. 

Which is exactly what has happened…

 Happy New Year and welcome African Swine Flu. 

African Swine Flu causes pigs to suffer fever and bleeding, before dying in less than a week. It has almost a 100% mortality rate and there is no vaccine for it, and with industrial farming set up the way it is, it is very hard to stop contamination. It first hit the pig population in China late last year but now with the Year of the Pig in full swing, almost 1 million pigs have had to be killed over the past few months in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease further. It isn’t working yet…

killing pigs

In 1960 African Swine Flu had an outbreak in Portugal when farming looked very different, and even then, it took more than three decades to eradicate the disease. Given that the disease also can live in cured meats for months and in frozen meat for years, , it means keeping it contained will be difficult. There have been thousands of cases confirmed in other countries this year, such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia Belgium and Estonia, and it can spread by contact or contaminated products.

The main issue with the disease breaking out in China is the ginormous scope of the industry there. 

Of course, most people are concerned African Swine flu spreading because of loss of ‘production units’ and therefore profit. The fast spreading disease has disrupted supplies of pork to big cities while prices have collapsed in areas with an oversupply of pigs that farmers are banned from shipping to other provinces. The small farmers pockets are hurting, the pork industry is nervous, and the people want their meat. 

But the real issue we need to be considering is, if a disease can spread so quickly within the livestock, what will happen when another zoonotic disease, a disease that passes from animal to human, breaks out in these conditions. Think Mad Cow and Bird Flu and think bigger… the last swine flu killed over 500,000 people…but the industry is much larger-in-scale now… 

At present African Swine Flu is not a danger to humans, but there are fears that it could mutate…

Each time we are finding one of these epidemics, there are more animals and stronger resistant diseases mutating…

Personally, I think it should be a HUGE wakeup call that the system is broken and needs to change. We need to look at history and adapt the manner in which we are destroying biodiversity and with it the natural resistance to disease, as well as the manner in which we keep animals and what we are feeding them -medicines included. Instead of only focusing on how to stop the spread of this disease, we need to target prevention of new, stronger viruses that could threaten in the future, livestock and humans, if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

The risk lies not only in pig farming but the manner we are raising all livestock in factory farms now. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation has estimated that more than a quarter of the world’s local farm animal breeds are now at risk of disappearing, and that almost 100 livestock breeds went extinct between 2000 and 2014. 80 percent of meat is now from concentrated industrial farms where very few ‘brands’ (breeds) of animals are kept - whether these be cows, chickens, turkeys or sheep. These farms are huge beyond the imagination and hardly need to be fit for humans to enter them, let alone the animals that are kept there for their entire short lives. They now are run by automatic feeders, temperature control systems, automatic fans and only get cleaned down once one lot of animals have grown to ideal size and are shipped off for slaughter, before the next group are brought in. Surely this can not be the way in which we improve the future of food, let alone the treatment of animals for welfare and health reasons.

This fast spreading disease is a call that a redesign of how we farm animals is needed on many different levels. With that, the routine antibiotics alone need to be stopped as it is a health disaster waiting to happen… or happening! China is the world’s largest consumer of agricultural antibiotics, out-dosing even the US by eight tonnes to every one. A 2013 study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that 162,000 tons of antibiotics are consumed in China each year, with 52% going to animal husbandry (In the US 80% of antibiotics are consumed by livestock each year). Knowing that industrial farming, especially for pork has exploded in numbers since then, we know the amount used is much higher now in 2019.

Some of these antibiotics added to the animals feed and injected are amoxicillin, tilmicosin, florfenicol and chloramphenicol, which are used on humans to treat infections. There are others used too and farmers can obtain and use antibiotics without a prescription. The antibiotics are used as growth promoters, for profit reasons, and to try and combat the rampant bacteria spread that happens in these conditions yet still, in the pig industry, a mortality rate of 15% is considered acceptable. A stand-alone worrying factor.

Are the antibiotics already not working for these 15% of pigs?

Are the pigs so sick that this many die in these conditions? Why?

How many more are ill but not dead when slaughtered for meat consumption?

pigs in factory farms

A 2013 study looked at the soil adjacent to three large-scale pig farms near major cities and found the surrounding manure-soaked environment contained high levels of the antibiotic tetracycline, as well as tetracycline-resistant bacteria with the prevalence of antibiotic resistance genes 28,000-fold greater than that of control sample soil. Another study that same year showed that people living near pig farms or crop fields fertilized with pig manure are 30% more likely to become infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Concerned yet? In 2014 in China we already saw what may be the future with anti-microbial resistance, when scientists found a bacterium resistant to colistin, a so-called “last in line” drug. This must be a red alert if there is ever one.

The Guardian reported that in 2015, Fudan University  tested the urine of 1,000 school children aged 8-11 in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and found that in 60% of samples at least one antibiotic was found, with two found in 25% of the samples. It detected drugs, such as tylosin and enrofloxacin, that are only licensed for use on farmed animals. Not only is this a real worry for microbial-resistant reasons, it also found evidence that exposure to antibiotics in childhood can raise the risk of obesity by threefold. Obesity increases the risk of numerous health issues for these innocent kids.

The Chinese Government has a pilot programme intended to lessen the use of antibiotics in pig farming, but like many of these phase-out plans, it is not happening at all fast enough with a holistic approach of redesigning the entire pig and all livestock farming practises. The African Swine Flu is concerning on many levels, but what it needs to be is a wake up call we need to act and fast.

The way we are farming - and eating to feed our growing population - is not working and now is not too soon to change it.