For La Gloria, the stench of blame is from pig factories

The worried manager of an industrial-sized pig farm in the little Mexican town of Xaltepec invited in journalists in an effort to calm things down. "What happened was an unfortunate coincidence," he told them, insistently. More than 2,000 miles away, in New York, the world's richest "pig baron", Joseph Luter III, is hoping he is right.

Downwind of Xaltepec – where 15,000 squealing hogs are squeezed into 18 warehouses – residents of La Gloria blame Smithfield, Luter's firm, for an outbreak of respiratory problems that swept the town last month, killing two children. Now with Mexican authorities identifying a four-year-old from the town, Edgar Hernandes, as one of the first-known cases of swine flu, furious residents believe that they are ground zero of a pandemic threatening the world. The very suggestion has sent a shudder through the ranks of campaigners who have long argued that the sort of industrialised pig farming that has turned Smithfield into one of the most powerful corporations in the US, with a market value of $1.4bn, was a disaster waiting to happen.

For Smithfield, the world's largest pork supplier, which processes more than one in three pigs killed in the US and jointly owns the Xaltepec plant and seven others in the region, the spiralling concern in Mexico threatens to become a worldwide marketing disaster – even before anyone is able to test the hunch of the people of La Gloria.

A team of UN veterinarians is arriving in Mexico to examine whether this new deadly strain of swine flu, mixed as it is with genetic material from avian and human strains, could be lurking in pig populations undetected. Smithfield says none of its pigs are sick but the company has sent samples for testing.

Victor Ochoa, the Xaltepec manager, ensured employees washed down cars coming into the plant yesterday and made journalists from the Associated Press shower and don protective clothing before entering. In common with his bosses back in the US, Mr Ochoa insisted that all 15,000 animals had been properly vaccinated, that the plant met all the required health standards, and that the vast swimming pool of faeces – industrial pig farming's toxic by-product – was covered with a lid to limit the exposure to the outside air. "What happened in La Gloria was an unfortunate coincidence with a big and serious problem that is happening now with this new flu virus," he said. La Gloria residents, though, have been protesting against the farm for months.

Starting in February, one in six of the 3,000 residents reported health problems. The government initially dismissed the spike as a late-season rise in ordinary flu, but by April, health officials sealed off the town and sprayed chemicals to kill the flies that residents said were swarming about their homes.

The business practices of Smithfield are a far cry from its origins, lovingly recounted in sepia-tinted prose on its corporate website. "The Luter family of Smithfield, Virginia, has been curing and selling hams since the turn of the century," it says.

The reports of swarming flies, terrible smells and pictures of rotting pigs left scattered around the perimeter of its industrialised pig farms in Mexico are echoes of the concerns that have long been troubling environmental activisits, campaigning against Smithfield in all the countries in which it operates, not least in the US. Critics say that – even on top of any questions about the humane treatment of the pigs – the sheer quantities of manure that have to be disposed of when thousands, or tens of thousands, of animals are housed together make it impossible to run this business in a safe way.

The manure is collected in a lake underneath the pig pens and then washed into giant pools or lagoons. It is eventually sprayed on nearby fields, but the lagoons have a habit of leaking or flooding.

In 1997 Smithfield was fined $12.6m for violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Its most recent financial reports show it is being sued in Missouri by residents near a facility there who accuse it of being a public nuisance, while a farm in Pennsylvania is under federal investigation over releases into the local water in 2007.

The other risk, scientists say, of concentrating so many pigs together is the risk of diseases spreading fast, a problem that farmers overcome by pumping the livestock full of vaccines and other drugs. In 2007 an outbreak of swine flu at its farms in Romania cost the company $13m.

Tom Garrett, a Wyoming ecologist who campaigned against Smithfield's expansion into Eastern Europe, where he said it would push small farmers out of business and lead to environmental problems, warned that the company can exploit corrupt local officials and lax regulation in countries outside the US. "They are looking for two things when they set up a farm – water, and naive local people who don't try to fight them off until they have dug in."

Smithfield says it is always investing in research to improve farming methods and operates its facilities to the highest standards. Its public relations message is complicated, however, by the uncompromising stance of chairman Joseph Luter III. Animal rights activists "want to impose a vegetarian society", the 67-year-old once said, and vegetarians are "neurotic".

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Life and Style
A general view during the 2014 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show at Earl's Court exhibition centre on 2 December, 2014 in London, England
fashionIt's not all about the catwalks: the big changes of the past year can be summed up in six clothing items
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?