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Mexicans blame industrial hog farms for flu

Residents of La Gloria, Mexico, complained for years about the effects of industrial pig farms near their fields. Now, many throughout the country are pinning the swine flu outbreak on the farms.
Victor Calderon, General Director of Granjas Carroll de Mexico, stands next to pigs at one of the company's farms on the outskirts of Xicaltepec in Mexico's Veracruz state on April 27. Mexico's Agriculture Department has said that its inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, and that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico.
Victor Calderon, General Director of Granjas Carroll de Mexico, stands next to pigs at one of the company's farms on the outskirts of Xicaltepec in Mexico's Veracruz state on April 27. Mexico's Agriculture Department has said that its inspectors found no sign of swine flu among pigs around the farm in Veracruz, and that no infected pigs have been found yet anywhere in Mexico.Alexandre Meneghini / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For years, farmers in the communities that dot this arid valley complained about the effects of the industrial pig farms that had multiplied near their fields.

The overpowering stench gave them headaches and drove them from their homes. Packs of wild dogs feasted on discarded pig carcasses and occasionally turned on their children and pets. There were fears that vast lagoons of excrement from more than 1 million hogs might seep into their groundwater.

Health officials have found no connection between the pig farms, owned and operated by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, and the flu virus that paralyzed Mexico for much of the past two weeks. But the crisis, which appears to be abating, has inflamed tensions between the world's largest hog producer and the poor neighboring communities here that have long warned that the farms are a danger to their health.

"To the people of this community, what brought about this problem was the pig farms," said Guillermo Franco Vázquez, the mayor of Perote, a county seat that has 22 farming communities, including La Gloria, in its jurisdiction. "To clear up this myth -- or to confirm it as reality -- we need more studies."

Center of the flu crisis
La Gloria, in the southeastern state of Veracruz, has been at the center of the flu crisis since late March, when a mysterious respiratory illness infected 616 residents, or more than 28 percent of the population. Among them was a 5-year-old boy identified as one of the first confirmed cases of the new virus. The remainder of the cases now appear to have been seasonal flu, according to state health officials.

With the crisis playing out, local residents and officials appear to be increasingly focused on the area's relationship with Smithfield, which operates in Mexico under its subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico. The conglomerate, which had $11.4 billion in sales last year, has made the Perote Valley a cog in its global expansion, an aggressive strategy that has frequently put the company at odds with the local population.

In 2007, hundreds of protesters blocked a federal highway in an effort to halt construction of a pig farm near La Gloria. Mexican officials say the company responded by pressing criminal charges against five residents who were perceived as leading the demonstration, including a 66-year-old farmer who was forced to sell his corn crop to defend himself. Smithfield has denied any involvement. The case is still pending.

Bertha Crisostomo, an elected La Gloria official who was also charged -- Perote's mayor posted her bail -- said she believes that Smithfield has targeted residents who object to the company's expansion because of health and environmental concerns. Crisostomo said she supports local investment, but added: "Our health is not up for negotiation."

"The only good thing Granjas Carroll has going right now is really good lawyers -- legal representatives who can tie up the people," said Fidel Herrera Beltrán, the Veracruz governor, during an interview in Jalapa, the state capital. "Instead of spending money to go after these people, it would have been easier for them to maintain good terms with the government of Veracruz and its citizens, to make social investments, to open clinics, to reforest the land." Herrera said he was working to get the case against the five La Gloria protesters dismissed.

Smithfield declined to make officials from the parent company or Granjas Carroll available for comment. In an e-mail, Gregg Schmidt, president of international operations for Murphy-Brown LLC, Smithfield's hog production subsidiary, wrote that Smithfield had nothing to do with the criminal action against La Gloria residents. Granjas Carroll receives random quarterly inspections from Mexico's environmental protection agency, he wrote, and conducts monthly tests for swine diseases, including influenza.

The company "believes that it has had no negative impact on the local community or the environment through its operations," Schmidt wrote.

Smithfield employs 907 people, making it the largest employer in the Perote Valley. The company works with 262 local service providers, according to the state, pays federal taxes and contributes 2 percent of its payroll, about $125,000 last year, to support Veracruz's infrastructure. The company said it has funded reforestation and irrigation and has provided computer equipment to local schools.

Strained relations
But relations between Smithfield and the local population are so strained that the state official who signed the 1993 deal to bring the company to Veracruz refuses to visit Perote "because I don't want the confrontation," said Miguel Rolón García, the director of economic development.

Smithfield moved into Mexico in anticipation of the expanding market after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. Granjas Carroll is a 50-50 joint venture between Smithfield and Agroindustrias Unidas de Mexico. Its pigs are raised under a "vertical integration" method that packs thousands of animals into identical barns covered with metal roofs. The pigs do little except eat and grow before being slaughtered. When they defecate, the waste falls through slatted wooden floors and is then flushed through pipes into open-air pits the size of two football fields, which the company calls lagoons and says are built with an impervious liner to avoid leakage.

Large-scale industrialized farming poses a number of health risks, according to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. They include possible contamination of groundwater and increased risk of transmission of "new or novel viruses" such as swine or avian flu.

"Such novel viruses not only put the workers and animals at risk of infection but also may increase the risk of disease transmission to the communities where the workers live," according to the report.

The towns of the Perote Valley lie on a wide-open plain; high winds whip up dirt devils and cyclones of brown dust. Vicente González, a 60-year-old farmer, said flus are common during winter, when temperatures can fall below freezing, but "for the last seven or eight years, it has become more continuous," he said. "People talk about burning skin and sore throats."

Schmidt, of Smithfield's hog production subsidiary, wrote that Granjas Carroll has built three clinics and employs two doctors who provide free medical care to the local community. The company pointed to the comments of Mexican health officials who attributed persistent illness in the area to temperature changes and lack of proper nutrition and access to safe drinking water, among other factors.

González provided a tour of pig farms in the area. The high-pitched squeals of hundreds of pigs emanated from the barns. No people were visible. Huge automated feeding cylinders stood at the front of each barn. The farms were surrounded by an electric chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, but the waste lagoons were open and unfenced, like the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool on the Mall.

At one facility, the rank, opaque lagoon was tinted red. About 100 feet away, in the direction of gusting winds, a sprinkler watered a field of alfalfa.

"The stench, sometimes it's so bad you can't even eat your lunch," González said.

Smithfield supports 16 farms in the region that produce 1.2 million pigs each year, according to the company.

One of the farms is located about 500 yards from the back of a stone house belonging to Fausto Limon and his wife, Patricia. "It all happened overnight," she said. "We never thought they would put one here. But they built it and within a month they were up and running."

"Sometimes we have to get out because we can't take the smell," said Limon, a soy bean and corn farmer who has organized opposition to the pig farms. "You start to vomit and you get headaches, your eyes begin to tear. We have to get in the truck and find a place where you can't smell it anymore."

Plagued by dogs
Limon said his farm has been plagued by dogs who feed off dead pigs discarded near the facilities. When there are no pigs to eat, he said, the dogs roam the area looking for food. Smithfield uses biodigesters, which store and then convert dead hogs into renewable energy, but local residents said they frequently overflow and pig corpses are left out in the open.

After Limon heard that Granjas Carroll was planning to build another farm near his house, he helped form Pueblos Unidos, a grass-roots organization composed of Perote Valley residents opposed to the expansion. The organization spoke out against the company's operations, which it said damaged the environment and threatened public health.

Pueblos Unidos successfully blocked construction of the pig farm near Limon's house, he said. Then, in 2006, residents of La Gloria heard that Granjas Carroll was planning to build another facility near their town. In January 2007, opponents organized a protest on the federal highway near the border with the state of Puebla. Several hundred people, many holding signs, partially blocked traffic and at one point detained a Granjas Carroll truck, threatening the driver, according to deposition testimony from the case.

Closing roads and highways is one of the most common forms of protest in Mexico. "Normally, the police arrive and they enter into a negotiation to open up the highway. It usually takes an hour or two," said Franco, the Perote mayor. "But Granjas Carroll, as a company, went to the authorities."

Local residents, the Perote mayor and the governor of Veracruz said in interviews that they believe the company pushed for the prosecution of the La Gloria demonstrators. Several company employees gave statements to investigators. Smithfield denied that it had anything to do with the case.

From Mexico to Europe to the United States and beyond, an outbreak of deadly swine flu leads to concern and health warnings.

"Any existing charges are under federal jurisdiction and are unrelated to [Granjas Carroll]," Schmidt wrote. "It is important to note that [Granjas Carroll] has had no significant conflicts with the many other communities surrounding its operations, some of which are in much closer proximity" to the pig farms "than the town of La Gloria."

A month after the demonstrations, around 10 a.m., Guadelupe Serrano heard a knock at his door. He was greeted by a man in civilian clothes and three federal policemen, he said, and was told that he had been charged with launching an "attack" on a federal highway. He was taken first to Jalapa, the Veracruz state capital, then to Puebla, where he was jailed overnight before his family bailed him out, he said.

Serrano, 66, has short gray hair and weathered skin from a lifetime in the fields. "I didn't kill anyone. I didn't rob anyone. I'm not a drug trafficker," he said during an interview in his living room. "We simply raised the voice of alarm that these pig facilities are contaminating our environment and threatening the health of the people."

Serrano has had to report to authorities in Puebla -- a two-hour drive -- every 15 days for more than a year. He said he has spent more than $5,000 on legal defense costs. "But I haven't done anything wrong," he said. "The truth is I'm not ashamed and I don't have anything to be ashamed of."

Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.