April 30, 2009
It has been said many times, perhaps most recently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that you should “never waste a good crisis.” The H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak is certainly a crisis and a tragedy, but I hope the public health community does not waste the opportunity to capitalize on questions and concerns being raised around the globe about the methods we use to raise animals for food. In particular, the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak highlights social justice issues related to where “factory farms” are located.
Negative effects associated with living near an Industrial Food Animal Production (IFAP) site have been documented time and time again, including decreased health status, property values, and quality of life. In addition, the increased likelihood of these sites being located in and around communities where traditionally disenfranchised populations reside (e.g. low income, minorities) has also been documented. The location of these facilities and the associated health effects has contributed to environmental injustices and health disparities in the U.S. and around the world.
The H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak draws our attention to the disenfranchised populations in North America that reside near massive hog facilities. The outbreak did not start in the human population among politicians, executives, or any other well-off people who are quite unlikely to live in close proximity to a massive hog facility. I suspect that if policy makers or corporate executives of agriculture corporations (such as Smithfield) were forced to live near IFAP sites then stringent regulations regarding treatment of waste, how many animals could be located at each site, and air and water quality monitoring would be passed and implemented at unprecedented speed.
We should be putting forth an effort to protect the health of disenfranchised populations forced to live next to IFAP operations (even if it means the end of artificially low meat prices) because of social justice issues, and the H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak illustrates another reason to address IFAP. Since most voters and policy makers are not mobilized to support comprehensive regulation of IFAP because they do not live near the operations, hopefully the concern over the current H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak can be used to further the conversation on these policy issues.
We are witnessing the tragic result of pathogens produced on an IFAP site affecting the general population; these pathogens do not respect borders or socioeconomic distinctions. If this crisis is wasted, the question for public health professionals and the public will continue to be when, and not if, another outbreak caused by pathogens from an IFAP site will cause illness and death among the global human population.