Why the Swine Flu is My Fault

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Someone recently said that good food produced from healthy animals who have been treated fairly, humanely, and kindly is expensive, and it should be. (It might have been the woman everyone loves to hate--but me--Alice Waters.) Naturally, whoever said it raised a major ruckus, especially among those of us who prefer to buy gargantuan quantities of food cheaply.

I know, because I am one of those people, or at least I used to be.

Transparency: a few years ago, I wrote a entire book about buying food in quantity for less money, and making it last. The book was not so much about buying in particular stores (although it had a natural connection to Costco, BJs, and Sam's Club), but more about learning how to repurpose everything so that nothing goes to waste, which is just old-school kitchen frugality at work whether you shop at a big box store, or are a CSA member facing down a 10 pound crate of beets every autumn. But nevertheless, I am absolutely guilty of going to my supermarket and, for example, picking out an entire pork loin for $12, making 20 meals out of it, and then writing about it. It used to make me feel fabulous, and very thrifty.

But now, all I can manage to think of is how I am to blame for the Swine Flu.

The fact is that every time I walk into the grocery store and pick out a mammoth piece of [fill in the blank] from the case at a staggeringly fabulous price, I am supporting factory farming, which produces gobs and gobs of "food" quickly and cheaply, without any concern whatsoever for environmental impact, quality, or safety. Let's not even talk about humane treatment, because it frankly doesn't matter: in factory farms, the animals -- the cows, the chickens, the pigs -- aren't really animals. They're cogs in a wheel, living short, painful lives destined to end in a processing plant designed to spit out product, and the more product processed and sold, the richer it makes the nice folks at ConAgra and Smithfield, Monsanto and Cargill. The details are not pretty: I read Fast Food Nation, but I couldn't see the movie because I'm a fainter with a very weak constitution.

But I'm also a hypocrite, and, if you're a meat eater with absolutely no real connection to the food on your table and no desire to know how it got there or how it lived, but you also have a professed belief in smart living and good eating and local and Slow Food and bumper stickers plastered all over your Prius, so are you.

Please don't take offense. There's no easy way to say that, but it's true.

My great-grandfather was an old-school kosher butcher, and my grandmother used to tell stories of how she would slaughter and prepare chicken for their Friday night supper. She used to say a little prayer, she once told me, for the animal that gave its life so that she would be able to eat. Could she have eaten braised fennel instead? Probably. But she didn't, because it wasn't the way she was raised. Instead, she was connected to the food on her table, in the most complete and profound of ways.

So why do we do it? Why do we look the other way when we, in our heart of hearts, know the hideous truth about how these animals live and how they die, and how dangerous it ultimately is for everyone involved? Why is it okay for them to live, shoulder to jowl, in squalor and disease-ridden factory "pens" that then require mass treatment with antibiotics to stave off the inevitable sicknesses that would otherwise kill them?

Because it's not about them, or us. It's about profit, and the theory that more is better, whether you're talking about money, or the ability to provide huge quantities of cheap food to the masses. It's part of the laws of supply and demand: the greater the demand, the more you produce, the cheaper the product. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about yo-yos, pants, toothbrushes, or pork. The only thing is that toothbrushes don't get sick.

To stem the tide of negative publicity, Smithfield has released the following statement today to its employees:

SMITHFIELD, Va., April 30, 2009 /PRNewswire-FirstCall via COMTEX News Network/ -- C. Larry Pope, President and Chief Executive Officer of Smithfield Foods, Inc. (NYSE: SFD), sent the following letter to all employees:
To Our Employees:
Like you, I have been closely monitoring all aspects of the H1N1 influenza outbreak (this is the official name of the mis-named but widely quoted "swine flu" since it has been determined by health officials throughout the world that the illness is a mutation of a number of strains). Unfortunately, the media and bloggers have jumped to conclusions based more on fear than fact and have sensationalized a serious illness.
As of this writing, there are still a number of facts about H1N1 that remain a mystery, including where the strain originated, how it is spreading, how far it will spread and when it will run its course. Hopefully, answers to these questions will soon be resolved. However, let me share with you some facts we do know at this time...namely, what Smithfield has done, is doing and will continue to do about keeping our workers and pigs healthy.
Earlier this week, when news of the virus first became public, we reported that we had found no evidence of the presence of the influenza virus in any of our pig herds or our employees at any of our worldwide operations, including those in the United States. Yesterday, we also announced that because so much attention was being given to the joint operation we run with a Mexican company in Veracruz (and it was believed by some that the initial outbreak of H1N1 flu originated with a little boy in La Gloria, a town not far from a farm that our joint venture partner operates in Mexico), we ran additional tests of pigs at that facility. The results of these independent laboratory tests should be available in a few days and we will, of course, announce the results. As you probably also have learned, Mexican health authorities, working with U.S. and health officials from other countries, have also inspected our farms in Veracruz and found no evidence of H1N1 flu at all.
As we have always said, our first priority as a company is to ensure the health and safety of our herds and our employees so that consumers can trust our products. Today, more than ever, and despite the fear generated by those who are not well-informed, I can assure you that consuming pork products is safe, and that Smithfield's brands, in particular, still stand for the highest quality.
It is an unfortunate fact of life these days that until more hard evidence is available from health officials, the public will continue to be bombarded by unfounded opinions, non-scientific statements and unrestrained internet media, rumor and speculation. Thus, it might be helpful to review some of the facts:
-- According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the
H1N1 influenza virus is not transmitted by food, so you cannot get the
disease from eating pork or pork products.

-- The CDC also stated that while the virus is contagious from humans to
humans, it has not found any evidence to indicate that any of the
illnesses resulted from contact with pigs, hence, the decision by the
Government to rename the virus H1N1 makes sense and helps remove the
"fear factor" from pork products.

-- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack confirmed that there is no evidence
at this time showing that swine have been infected with H1N1 influenza.

In addition to conducting the recent tests I mentioned above, let me remind you of our policy regarding the health of our pig herds and employees. All of our herds at all of our operations, including at our joint ventures in Mexico and elsewhere, are tested regularly for instances of various bacteria and disease, including influenza. We routinely administer flu vaccines to our herds in order to protect them from potential viruses and conduct monthly tests to examine the presence and identity of different flu strains. At no point have any of these tests revealed this strain of the influenza virus in our herds in any country where our company operates.
As we have previously said, we are cooperating fully with health officials and aiding in their investigation into the source of the H1N1 outbreak, and have allowed exhaustive testing of our hogs to ensure that this virus has not infected our farms. These actions were taken voluntarily by the Company. We will also continue to maintain rigorous safety procedures at all of our operations, including limiting farm access to necessary personnel, preventing access to personnel who have recently returned from international travel, and enforcing essential personal hygiene practices.
I am hopeful that the cause of the outbreak is soon found. Unfortunately, an epidemic such as this is difficult to contain, but we can pray that health officials and doctors around the world will find answers soon. For us, it is particularly important to remain focused on our immediate responsibilities. Every single one of us plays a critical role in demonstrating our uncompromising commitment to the safety of our products.
Thank you for all of your efforts. I will continue to update you as I can.
C. Larry Pope

I'm not a scientist, so I don't know whether or not Swine Flu can, in fact, be carried by the animals themselves; but history has shown us that devastating disease can, and will, be spread by flies.

Last Saturday, to welcome the warm weather that we've been waiting for in New England, I went to my local supermarket to buy some ribs; the case was packed to the brim with Smithfield hams and whole pork shoulders at a deep, deep discount. They were clean out of ribs, though, so I drove to another local market, where I bought one cryovacked rack, sold under the store brand. It was $14 and could feed two, as opposed to the $8.00 whole Smithfield pork shoulder I had just seen at the previous store, which could easily feed twenty people and provide bountiful leftovers.

I really wanted the ribs, even though we're on a tight household budget, so I bought them and made three smallish meals out of them. I have no idea where the ribs came from, but I suspect that they, too, were mass-produced somewhere, like virtually every item that can be found in the average American supermarket meat case.

And there's the rub. No matter where we live or how well-intentioned and serious about food we might be, until we wrap our consumerist brains around the fact that we don't need enormous quantities of meat; that it is okay to pay more for locally produced meat of higher quality; that we must savor and respect what we call food; that we have to learn to eat smaller amounts and reduce mass demand; until this happens, we are all complicit in this devastating, dangerous quagmire.

Until that happens, the Swine Flu is my fault.
And yours.