Original: The Politics of a Potential Pandemic: From Sebelius to Smithfield
Several political dynamics are running immediately beneath the surface of news coverage of the swine flu outbreak. First and foremost, the confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services Secretary is being held up by GOP Senators because she is - GASP - pro-choice. More importantly, a growing chorus of bloggers and Mexican media outlets are pointing to an American-based company, Smithfield, as 50% owner of the Mexican farm where the swine flu is believed to have originated.
Sebelius Confirmation as Health and Human Services Secretary
This story will receive significant attention today as the Senate prepares to vote sometime in the afternoon or evening. Joe Sudbay has the text of the unanimous consent agreement, which indicates that we could see a vote by 6pm today. Sudbay's critique of the GOP obstructionism on this is a thing of beauty. SEIU has a petition running and I'm assuming that won't be all we'll hear from them on this. Greg Sargent has a bit of a back and forth between spokespeople for Senators Reid and McConnell, and his conclusion hits the mark: "The filibuster over an abortion controversy is still throwing a hurdle in the way of this nomination, despite the flu epidemic."
Of greater immediate consequence than the Sebelius confirmation, are the dozens of other top officials at the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services who have also not yet been confirmed. The Post notes that:
Vacant positions include the department's assistant secretary for health affairs and chief medical officer, and the leaders of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, all of which would play significant roles in battling a pandemic.
The administration, understandably, is stressing that they are fully prepared and are quite happy with the team they have in place. While I applaud Mr. Gibbs' ability to say this with a straight face, there is no denying that they would be better prepared than they are now if their full team for handling these types of situations was in place. GOP obstruction is literally interfering with the functioning of the Federal government during a time of crisis.
Evidence points toward Smithfield-owned Farm as source of Swine Flu
Tom Philpott at Grist was way out in front of this one on Saturday morning. He points to several great sources which I'll summarize below, but I want to stress that you should read his excellent piece on this.
- A timeline (originally published April 6th) on the disease-tracking blog Biosurveillance indicates that residents in heavily affected areas suspect a farm operated by Granjas Carroll (50% owned by American company Smithfield) is the source. According to residents, Granjas Carroll attributed the flu to... "the flu."
- An article in a Vera Cruz paper, La Marcha, declares: "Granjas Carroll, causa de epidemia en La Gloria." The translation of the headline, as well as the sub-headline that follows it, according to this Babelfish translation: "Carroll farms, cause of epidemic in the Gloria: Settlers ask the intervention of the state government so that the federal authorities supervise the porcícolas faecal remainders that company generates." The last paragraph of the article notes that the Mexican Secretary of Health dismissed the notion.
- An article in La Journada, (English version), paints an ugly picture of the farming practices Granjas Carrol apparently participates in.
For their part, Smithfield took a pummeling on the stock market and in the court of opinion Monday, but is currently denying all wrong doing
: "[We have] no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico." Natasha Chart, who has been all over this story as well, doesn't buy it
. She reminds us that "the food industry is notorious for trying to cover up problems with their products as was revealed during the peanut contamination fiasco." Charles Lemos
, points to a 2006 Rolling stone article
on how dangerously unsustainable Smithfield's operations are, which explains:
A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.
Lemos then brings the story full circle: "That unprecedented concentration is what makes epidemics like the one we are now experiencing possible. The problem is the industrial-scale CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) which produce hogs and hog waste on scale not imaginable."
The Sebelius angle will fizzle out after she is confirmed by the United States Senate. Barring further GOP obstructionism in the face of an emergency (which we can't rule out), she will be confirmed this evening. But the larger story, the story of industrial agriculture, of force feeding animals, of drinking water contamination, of the very conditions that made the outbreak possible, is just beginning to unravel. As this story plays out it will provide us with a golden opportunity for a broader dialogue on the sustainability of our food, environmental, trade and agricultural policies. Lets not squander this opportunity.
I'll be following the story at EnviroKnow as I am able, but here are some folks you should really be reading on this topic:
James M. Wilson at Biosurveillance
Natasha Chart at Sustainable Food
Tom Philpott at Grist
Paul Revere at Effect Measure
Charles Lemos at MyDD