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A New Disease Big Meat Doesn’t Want You to Know About

Have you ever heard of African swine fever (ASF) caused by the African swine fever virus (ASFV)? A fourth of the world’s pigs have died from it just this year –– half of all of China’s pigs –– but like previous food animal pandemics, Big Meat has managed to keep it out of the news.

The only mainstream stories most people have read that touch on ASF deal with China’s pork reserves (like the US’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve says a New York Times piece that manages to dodge the disease itself) and trade implications of the pig disease. Questions about the pandemic disease potentials of intensive animal agriculture are skirted.

ASF originated in East Africa and reached Eastern Europe in 2007 where it is has remained. Since ASF’s outbreak in China last year in which half of the country’s pigs have died and another 1 million were culled, ASF has spread to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, the Philippines, more of eastern Europe and even Belgium.

“It’s not a question of whether ASF reaches American shores, but when,” wrote Thomas Parsons, professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine, and Scott Michael Moore, China Program Director at the University of Pennsylvania, in the Hill this month. “Should the virus enter the U.S., your future as a pork producer would radically change,” warns Pork Business.

The ASF virus causes death in 1 to 8 days in acute cases and, in other animals, subclinical cases in which there are no symptoms. This allows the spread of the disease as animals and their meat are sold either deliberately or not.

This is not the first time that Big Meat has kept the facts of major animal pandemics away from consumers who likely would be turned off to their products. It also suppressed the facts about porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) and avian flu.

By 2014, PEDv had killed 10 percent of the nation’s pigs, but Big Meat managed to prevent the public from seeing dumpsters full of dead pigs. If they saw photos, people might ask what is happening on industrial farms, why are so many animals sick and what drugs are they being given? (The drugs pigs are given to prevent diseases is stomach turning.) The PEDv scourge was so devastating, a Kentucky farm fed dead pigs to other pigs in an attempt to induce “immunity” in survivors.

To combat PEDv the government gave $11.1 million of our tax dollars to private farmers who were “producers of infected herds.” Here’s a cheaper idea: how about giving them fresh air, room and no drugs?

Then there was U.S. bird flu. From 2014 through mid-2015, 48 million chickens and turkeys were killed in the U.S. to prevent the disease’s spread and protect farmer profits. Despite the carnage, the disease resurfaced in 2017. Again Big Meat managed to keep images out of the public view.

It is easy to see why. To prevent the spread of bird flu, healthy, floor-reared turkeys and broiler chickens are herded into an enclosed area where they were administered propylene glycol foam to suffocate them. “Ventilation shutdown” is also used –– raising the barn temperature to at least 104F for a minimum of three hours to kill the entire flock. “Round the clock incinerators and crews in hazmat suits,” were required for bird depopulation in 2015 reported Fortune.

When farm animal disease pandemics hit, it is not about the “price of bacon,” trade wars or farmer profits as mainstream media and Big Meat would have you believe. It is about a style of farming which egregiously harms animals, workers and the environment for a product that is about as good for you as cigarettes. The African swine fever is just the latest example.

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Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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