NAFTAchoo! The Global Virus Cultivated by Globalization

By Yvonne Yen Liu Apr 30, 2009

Paula Deen promises us special Mother’s Day recipes on the Smithfield Foods website: Bacon wrapped shrimp over pasta, sweet potato biscuit sandwiches, all served with generous helpings of Smithfield’s bacon and luncheon meats. Her teeth gleam against her skin, the color and texture of the well-preserved, smoked ham. The factory farm that may have produced the pork gracing Paula’s dishes is now seen as responsible for the global pandemic of influenza. Evidence points to a meat plant owned by a Smithfield subsidiary in Veracruz, Mexico, Granjas Carroll, as the source of pollutants that led to the first known cases of swine flu. The year that NAFTA came into effect, 1994, Smithfield opened Granjas Carroll in Veracruz. Not subject to regulations by the Mexican government, the facility close to La Gloria lacks a sewage treatment plant to dispose of the tons of effluvia and pig manure produced as by-products of breeding 56,000 sows to sire over a million hogs in 2008 alone. And their presence in Mexico is expanding. Now, an infection brewed in the fermenting excrement of the Granjas Carroll factory, is threatening to give the whole world the flu. Some observe that the swine flu should not rightly be identified as such. Calling it the Mexican flu is blatantly racist and an attempt by right-wing pundits to manipulate global panic towards their own purposes. The virus, incubated in a pig factory owned by a U.S. corporate pork giant, its presence in Mexico made possible by the free trade agreement, can properly be named the NAFTA virus.
Patient zero is Edgar Enrique Hernandez, 5, of La Gloria, a small mountain village in Veracruz, five miles upwind from the meat factory. Three months ago, Edgar came down with the flu that infected thousands of residents in his village. Two infants died, alarming the Mexican government. They sent in health workers to seal off the town in March and fumigated it with pesticides, to kill the black clouds of flies that swarmed people’s homes. Residents of La Gloria have long complained about the smell emanating from the farms and the fog of flies permanently haunting the lagoons of manure and pig carcasses left to rot on the grounds. Pollutants from the farms get blown into the village and the toxins are trapped by the mountains of La Gloria. Residents also suspect that their water and air have been contaminated. Half of the population in La Gloria works in Mexico City. Experts speculate that’s the line of transmission. Hogs produce three times more excrement than humans do. According to a 2006 Rolling Stone article, 500,000 pigs at a single Smithfield facility generate more fecal matter each year than the 1.5 million inhabitants of Manhattan. They describe the conditions in a U.S.-based factory:

Smithfield’s pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs…The temperature inside hog houses is often hotter than ninety degrees. The air, saturated almost to the point of precipitation with gases from shit and chemicals, can be lethal to the pigs. Enormous exhaust fans run twenty-four hours a day. The ventilation systems function like the ventilators of terminal patients: If they break down for any length of time, pigs start dying.

Not a very pleasant neighbor to have. The Centers for Disease Control identify Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) as petri dishes for breeding illnesses both for workers of the plant and area residents. Employees can develop respiratory issues and musculoskeletal injuries, and are exposed to infections that travel from animals to humans. Not surprisingly, a study performed in 2000 found that pig farms are concentrated in communities with high poverty rates and high percentages of people of color. In the U.S., meat factories were primarily located in the south, employing the Black and Latino working class who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. The U.S. imposed tight regulations on the livestock industry since the 1970s, subjecting agribusinesses to standards to protect the environment, clean air, and water. In 1985, Smithfield received a hefty fine, $12.6 million, for dumping hog waste into the Pagan River in Smithfield, VA. These sanctions as well as aggressive union campaigns that successfully organized workers drove Smithfield to contract their operations in the U.S. In February, they closed six plants in the U.S. and cut the jobs of 1800 employees. NAFTA tilled the soil in which the influenza flourished; the free trade treaty ripped small family farmers from their roots in land and allowed large agribusinesses such as Smithfield to cross borders and setup their meat-industrial complex in Mexico. Los 400 Pueblos (Movement of 400 Peoples) is an organization comprised of Mexican peasants from Veracruz. They allege that the government seized thousands of acres of land fromthem in 1993, the year NAFTA was signed. The farmers stage infamous protests where they march through Mexico City, stripped to their underwear, a metaphor for how everything was taken from them when they lost their land. Al Giordano of Narco News wrote:

Welcome to the aftermath of “free trade.” Authorities now want you to grab a hospital facemask and avoid human contact until the outbreak hopefully blows over. And if you start to feel dizzy, or a flush with fever, or other symptoms begin to molest you or your children, remember this: The real name of this infirmity is “The NAFTA Flu,” the first of what may well emerge as many new illnesses to emerge internationally as the direct result of “free trade” agreements that allow companies like Smithfield Farms to escape health, safety and environmental laws.