In the days prior to writing this article, outbreaks of COVID-19 have brought closures of several plants and an overall deficit of processing capacity. We, and many others, have been involved in unwelcome discussions of methods for euthanasia and disposal of large numbers of healthy pigs.
This unfolding catastrophe for U.S. swine producers will also greatly affect the availability and cost of food for consumers. The pork industry is not alone — supply chains of many food industry sectors are disrupted by the pandemic, and food insecurity promises to increasingly afflict the U.S. and global populations. It is disheartening to hear of fruit and vegetables rotting in the fields, and dairy farmers tipping milk down the drain.
However, these pale in comparison with the prospect of euthanasia of healthy animals that our pig farming family is devoted to rearing. To the financial blows that may lead industry members to lose their livelihoods must be added the mental anguish for all who, in this crisis, must turn their hands to this unfortunately necessary task.
One would hope that the shared calamity of this pandemic would foster a culture of collaboration and solidarity among all sectors of society, as humankind grapples with difficult trade-offs between serious risks to life and the economic consequences of mitigating them.
Indeed, we see many examples where the most admirable of human reactions are displayed, by healthcare providers and other "essential workers," many of whom have long been underappreciated. At the other end of the scale, we see futility in those who seek to apportion "blame," and most appallingly when they harvest mistruths to do so.
A recent opinion piece, "We have to wake up: factory farms are breeding grounds for pandemics"1 is such a smorgasbord of misinformation that it is hard to know where to start. First, we need to point out there are neither facts, suspicions nor rumors that implicate any domestic livestock species, let alone "factory farms," in the emergence of COVID-19.
The authors make their case by digging up some of the mythology around the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, stating "But with recent pandemic virus threats from influenza viruses such as H1N1 (swine flu) or H5N1 (bird flu) there is no ambiguity: those viruses evolved on chicken and pig factory farms. Genetic analyses have shown that crucial components of H1N1 emerged from a virus circulating in North American pigs."
Sticking just with the pigs, there is more than a little ambiguity. The early stages of the 2009 pandemic saw a torrent of industry criticism after the "first" case was reportedly in a 5-year-old Mexican boy in the town of La Gloria, near the site of a "factory farm" owned by Carroll Farms, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Then some facts ruined a good story when retrospective studies showed the first H1N1 cases in Mexico occurred months earlier in San Luis de Potosi, a region without intensive hog production. To state that "crucial components of H1N1 emerged from a virus circulating in North American pigs" is a vague approximation to the truth. None of the genes of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 clustered tightly with those of preexisting U.S. swine influenza viruses. "Neither the 2009 pandemic H1N1 nor closely related progenitor viral genes were present in U.S. swine influenza viruses prior to 2009,"2 when it was introduced by infected people. Later studies found pandemic H1N1 virus precursors had existed in pigs in Mexico for about a decade, but the specific circumstances of where and how it emerged remain unknown.
Exactly when, how and where pandemics arise are hard to determine, and other major influenza pandemics (1918, 1957, 1968) all predated the era of intensive production. Interestingly, the viral diseases that have emerged to become major problems in modern swine production (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, porcine circovirus type 2, porcine epidemic diarrhea) have all been highly host-specific and pose no risk to humans.
Returning to today's crisis, we should anticipate that habitual critics of our industry would take the opportunity to join the chorus of blame. In order to protect against any such future events, critical analysis will be needed to understand the vulnerability of the U.S. swine industry to the COVID-19 pandemic. The evolution of a highly efficient industry with minimal redundancy, coupled with considerable recent expansion, may have created little tolerance for any reduction in processing capacity.
However, as we undertake what must be done today, it is important not to lose sight of what the industry has achieved in arriving at this point. The safety of pork is demonstrably better than in prior eras, significant progress has been made in reducing the environmental impact of pork production, real prices to consumers have declined steadily over decades, and the United States has shifted from being a net importer of pork to a major pork-exporting nation. Demand for our products remains high, and we need to work calmly toward defining a more resilient, yet still efficient, structure into the future.