The cause of swine flu

The answer to the pandemics of today and tomorrow lie in how we produce our food. Can we make it safe, and at what cost, to ourselves and the planet?

The cause of swine flu will become a cause all its own.

The most likely point of origination is a gigantic pig farm in Veracruz state in Mexico, called a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

CAFOs are more factory than farm. In order to keep pigs healthy until slaughter they are fed antibiotics, making containment ponds holding their waste a rich protein stew in which germs and drugs wage constant war.

Residents near the plant blame it for their disease. Mexican officials, backed by the plant's owners, claim the center of the outbreak is coincidental -- that the disease came from China and just passed through.

That story is not washing with the Mexican media, and simple logic dictates why. We know exposure to antibiotics makes bugs resistant to them. You have lakes of untreated sewage containing these drugs.

This current flu could be just the first of many.

Politics aside, there is irony here.

The causes of seasonal and swine flu exist at the extreme end points of protein production. Seasonal flu emerges from an organic process in which ducks eat bugs and people eat ducks on subsistence farms. This pandemic flu may have emerged from a food factory using the latest antibiotics.

Right now the pressure of this crisis is being felt by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. It is expected to next fall on incoming HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius.

But the real pressure should fall on Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (above). The answer to the pandemics of today and tomorrow lie in how we produce our food. Can we make it safe, and at what cost, to ourselves and the planet?