Pigs, the other Unclean Meat
Like most humans, I like pork. However, some of my religious friends assure me that pork is unclean. While I assure them that I cook it properly, they are unswayed by this mere physical cleansing. This, in a way, makes sense: no amount of fire can sear away a metaphysical filth. If, of course, there is such a thing.
While I am still unwilling to accept the idea of pork being metaphysically unclean, I do accept that pigs (like humans and birds) are flu factories. While everyone has heard of swine flu, most folks are probably not aware that pigs can serve as oinking germ laboratories. To grossly over simplify things, flu virus strains can jump species from humans to pigs and also from birds to pigs. Like many viruses, the flu virus can swap bits and pieces, thus creating strains that blend features of multiple strains. While not all these strains are particularly virulent (witness the recent pandemic “pandudic”) this sort of recombination is worrisome because it can produce nasty results.
Obviously, virus swapping between species is nothing new. However, there are some relative new things. First, we have massive agribusiness that raise pigs (and birds) in large numbers and in highly concentrated areas. This means that we have created massive breeding grounds for diseases. Second, we have a worldwide rapid transportation system which allows new strains to be spread far and wide rapidly. So, for example, a new strain that appears on a pig farm in China can be spread to New York city via the next jet out.
Given that these factory farms are prime disease farms, one would think that governments would closely monitor them and be on the lookout for the next pandemic. Some countries, such as China, do this. In the United States, however, there is considerable reluctance to allow the state to monitor the herds for diseases that could be a threat to humans.
One reason is the view that the government should not “meddle” in the affairs of private industry (other than to send subsidy checks, of course). This can, of course, be countered on health grounds: if monitoring pigs can help deal with a dangerous new pandemic, then it would seem to be within the legitimate powers of the state to do so. After all, if the state can do a full body scan of airline passengers, surely the state should be allowed to check out pigs for threats to human life. The flu is, of course, far more dangerous than terrorists (just compare flu deaths and deaths attributed to terror).
Another reason, which has more substance, is that such testing can be a financial hazard to pig farmers. While eating bacon will not give you the flu, pork sales drop when the news is full of tales of swine flu. Not surprisingly, if the public learned that pig herds were being tested for pandemic flu viruses, this would also have an impact on sales. And, of course, herds that tested positive might not find any buyers, even after they recovered and were perfectly safe to eat (well, for unclean beasts). This problem would need to be addressed. One approach would be public education on the matter. Of course, since ignorance and emotion tend to dominate over reason, this approach might not work that well. A second approach would be to assure confidentiality of test results and to have the state compensate farmers in case a herd had to be destroyed (or could not be sold because of unfounded concerns).