"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


Swine Flu: It Can Happen to Jew

Upon hearing about the swine flu outbreak on Friday, I figured that I would be safe. Avian flu was generally transmitted by contact with or consumption of infected poultry or eggs. It seemed reasonable that a Jewish vegan who avoids pork for multiple reasons would not be at risk for swine flu. I was wrong. A Jewish physician summed it up in an article in today's Jerusalem Post:
Even those who think, 'Well, I keep kosher, I don't eat pork, so this outbreak isn't going to affect me,' they're wrong. This has nothing to do with eating. The outbreak began with people who worked closely with pigs, but from that point on, it's spread from person to person. ... [I]f there's an outbreak, Jews and non-Jews will both have cause for concern.

Kosher-keeping Jews (and vegans) didn't create this mess, but we're just as susceptible to suffering from it. Today, a Jewish community security network sent out public health information about swine flu to "hundreds of Jewish institutions, including federations and Jewish community centers," the JTA reported. Two cases of suspected but unconfirmed swine flu cases have shown up in Israel. And according to the Associated Press, "Ultra-Orthodox Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman on Monday declared that Israel would call the new potentially deadly disease that has already struck two continents 'Mexico Flu,' rather than 'Swine Flu, as pigs are not kosher." (A Jewschool post noted, "This is completely ridiculous. If the logic is 'swines aren’t kosher, treyf is bad,' wouldn’t a 'bad' connotation be fitting for a deadly flu virus?")

I feel as though I should've seen this coming. Three warning signs from last month seem quite telling in retrospect:
  • A post on The PETA Files today noted, "Just last month, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote two articles about the spread of deadly methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus on pig farms. No, Kristof isn't psychic. He's just paying attention—unlike the people at your local meat counter. Bottom line: We can stop pigs from killing us if we simply stop killing them."
  • HBO premiered its Death on a Factory Farm documentary, which showed terrible conditions for hogs on an Ohio factory farm. Pigs were tossed by their hind legs into wagons, which led to a cruelty-to-animals conviction, and downed hogs were hanged by a chain attached to a frontloader. The documentary shows unsanitary conditions, particularly mounting piles of manure, as well as pigs who are deprived of much-needed veterinary care. Upon seeing the close confinement and squalor that thousands of hogs live in, especially when sows are in gestation and farrowing crates, it is crystal clear that diseases can spread easily on factory farms.
  • I saw Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States, speak in New York. Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, made the connection between humans' domestication of livestock, intensification of livestock production, and industrialized intensification of livestock production and three corresponding eras of human diseases. Since the swine flu outbreak began, Greger has commented:

Factory farming practices have directly led to the emergence of deadly human pathogens including mad cow disease, Strep suis, Nipah virus, multi-drug resistant foodborne bacteria, and highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza. Although AIDS has killed 25 million people, the reason there is so much concern about influenza is that it is the only known pathogen capable of infecting literally billions of people in a matter of months.With international attention now focused on the emerging H1N1 swine flu virus, it is important to reflect on how such viruses arise.

The first recorded emergence of a swine flu virus like the one we now face, incorporating both human and avian genes, was on a factory farm in North Carolina in 1998. When thousands of animals are crowded into filthy, football field-sized sheds to lie beak to beak or snout to snout atop their own waste, it can be a breeding ground for disease.

Though some within the meat industry have made commitments and acted to move away from some of the worst intensive confinement practices, others have instead sought to overturn laws meant to improve animal health. Last year, for example, the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute brought a lawsuit to overturn a California law that would exclude pigs too sick or crippled even to walk from the human food supply, forcing producers to take better care of these animals.

A study of downed pigs published in 2008 in Livestock Science found that non-ambulatory pigs were significantly more likely to test positive for swine flu compared with pigs who could walk. More than half of the downed pigs were found to be actively viremic with swine flu virus, meaning that the virus was coursing through their bloodstream—53.8 percent were actively infected with an H1N1 virus and 51.9 percent with H3N2.

The meat industry trade groups argued, however, that it was okay to slaughter and process downed pigs for human consumption because swine flu wasn’t a threat. Now that the World Health Organization has declared swine flu a public health emergency, maybe industry will stop trying to undermine laws meant to protect animals and the public, and instead reduce the overcrowding and stress that helped lead to the emergence of such diseases in the first place.

Kosher consumers might not have created demand for pork, but we all need to recognize the common connection between the factory farming of all animals and deadly animalborne diseases. The next potential pandemic could come from kosher animals. Individuals can do their part to stop potential crises by going vegetarian. If the swine flu outbreak causes enough alarm, perhaps the meat industry and the federal government will actually crack down on factory farming practices in order to safeguard public health.


  • At 4/27/2009 11:42 PM, Anonymous Richard Schwartz said…

    Very good analysis, Michael.

    The swine flu outbreak is just one more wake-up call to the need for a major shift to plant-based diets.

    Let us hope that people will finally start paying attention.


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