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Are bad conditions for pigs the cause of swine flu?

Swine or pig flu has suddenly hit the headlines and become the latest thing for us to worry about, after the Global Economic Crisis, and terrorism, and SARS, and AIDS and so on.

While we don our face masks and wash our hands and debate whether it's safe to eat meat from pigs, some people are asking whether the mistreatment of animals is the cause of the outbreak.

Do we keep pigs in such bad conditions, whether in factory farms or in backyard piggeries, that the outbreak of such diseases is inevitable?

Are these illnesses nature's way of saying that we cannot treat animals as mere commodities?

Sydney Morning Herald reader Raph Brous of East Malvern (Vic) wrote a letter to the editor, saying: "As the H1N1 swine flu provokes global concern, let's reflect on the causes of this dangerous new virus. Most North American pig farms confine more than 5000 animals in disgustingly cruel and confined conditions. Most Australian piggeries are no different.

"In the journal Science a veterinary pathologist from the University of Minnesota has stated the obvious danger: 'With a group of 5000 animals, if a novel virus shows up, it will have more opportunity to replicate and potentially spread than in a group of 100 pigs on a small farm.'

"Swine flu is a result of the inhumanity practised by pig farmers who prioritise profits over animal welfare. People who eat pork products ignore that the pig industry severely harms the environment and the pigs.

"How sadly ironic that as humans abuse animals, forcing thousands of pigs and poultry into squalid factory farms, their viruses combine and evolve into new strains that teach us a deadly lesson about the everyday abuse of animals to satisfy human greed."

Meanwhile, Victorian Farmers Federation pig group president Aeger Kingma told AAP that the Australian pork industry had a world's best status for the health of its herd.

Swine flu was a human health issue, not an animal health or food safety issue, he said.

"From the Australian pig herds' perspective, Australia is free of swine flu," he said.

"After consulting with Australian Pork Ltd, we can assure consumers that all fresh pork and processed pork products sold in Australia are safe to eat."

And Emily Mackintosh, general manager of communications at Australian Pork Ltd, told Glenda Kwek, reporting for smh.com.au, that people should not be concerned about eating pig products in Australia.

"Swine fever from which this disease is from is not a known disease in Australia," Ms Mackintosh said.

"So there is no risk of people catching it from Australian pigs. The only way that this flu is going to get into this country is by human transportation of those people who may have entered the affected countries and contracted the disease that way. Consumers should [be aware] that it is nothing to do with the pork products in this country.'

Ms Mackintosh said all pork - fresh or imported - was subject to quarantine and biosecurity protocols. Australia also did not import pig meat from Mexico, she said.

"There's also very strict health and security guidelines as part of the stockman's program that also ensures the health and wellbeing of the people handling the animals.'

People wanting to eat local pork should speak to their butcher or deli supermarket to make sure they were buying Australian ham or pork, and also look for the "Product of Australia" label, she said.

The World Organisation for Animal Health recommended a more appropriate name for the virus would be "North American influenza", AAP reported.

And a senior Israeli official changed the term so as not to pronounce the name of the animal banned by Judaism, AFP reported.

"We will use the term Mexican flu in order not to have to pronounce the word swine," said Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman of the ultra-religious United Torah Judaism party.

Egypt ordered the immediate cull of all the estimated 250,000 pigs in the country.

So what do you think?

- Steve Jacobs, acting Environment Editor, smh.com.au, with agencies and Fairfax Media reporters.


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