Flu at work

This would be an excellent occasion to write about industrial farms and the investigation on where this new virus came from. But I’m already doing that at work, so there will be no posts about that in this blog. If you’re interested, follow our stories in Animal Pharm News.


The un-swine flu

The World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, has issued a statement claiming that “swine flu” is the wrong name for the disease that everybody is talking about. They claim that this virus, that has genetic material from avian flu, swine flu and human flu, has never been found in pigs. (In fact, it had never been found anywhere until a couple of days ago. It’s a brand new virus, it seems).

They say that since it was found in Mexico, US and Canada, it should be called “North Amercian Influenza”, just like the “Spanish Influenza” of 1918.

Then, the question that comes to mind is: if it was never found in pigs, why is it being called swine flu? Soon we will know (hopefully) where exactly it jumped from pigs (?) to people.

This article here defends that the overcrowded conditions of the industrial swine farms in Mexico, and the contact between pigs and birds, are possibly to blame. Despite the sensational tone of the text, I believe it raises a possibility that has to be investigated further.

The 3 little pigs before they got the flu

The 3 little pigs before they got the flu

The US Department of Agriculture is preparing a report of organic farming in the country, since it is a business that includes at least 20,000 farms in the country (I mean, that was the figure in 2007).

In the meantime, the California Senate Committe on Food and Agriculture approved a bill to phase out antibiotics* in animals. The bill establishes that all meat served in state schools, from 2012, must come from antiobiotic-free animals. By 2015 the same rule applies to any meat produced for human consumption.

The approval by the committee was considered as a “first step” towards a ban in California by some newspapers which needed a good headline for the story. Now the bill will be analysed by the Education Committee.

*when people say “antibiotics free”, they mean the animals are not given antibiotics regularly (in the feed) to promote growth or to prevent diseases, but they will take this medication to treat diseases (giving antibiotics in a regular basis is called non-therapeutic use – giving them for a specific amount of time to treat a problem is considered therapeutic use and, as long as I know, considered fine even in organic farms)

This something that has intrigued me for a long time: how come today so many children are allergic to so many things, including perfectly normal foods such as milk or peanuts?

One idea in the back of my head is that years ago these allergies would never be discovered, and with time the child would eventually be dessensitized. It might be true in some cases (I’ve heard that if I stopped eating lactose, my respiratory problems would disappear. But I need much more than that to give up my cheese, ice cream and coffe with milk).

That's me in my cheese kingdom!

That's me in my cheese kingdom!

But of course in some more serious cases, this idea doesn’t make any sense. The allergies are real and very serious. Nobody knows why, but the BBC is making a series of articles about that. They believe pollution and chemical compounds in the environment may be to blame, but so far no one knows for sure.

The bottom line is: how do you avoid pollution? Well, you don’t. You can dodge it a little here and a bit there, but it’s annoying to think how little we can do…

PS: Interesting exercise: write “cheese” in Google Images and see what comes up.

By Kraft

By Kraft

Now write “fromage.”

proper cheese

proper cheese

During the Easter holiday I went hiking in the Isle of Wight with a group of friends. Lots of blisters and 70 km later, I’m convinced that all this concern about food ingredients, additives and artificial dodgy stuff is something shared only by a very small group of people.

A small growing group, for sure, but it’s not a “real world concern,” if I can call it that way. I don’t remember seeing anything “natural,” “organic,” “whole,” “unprocessed,” or ______ (include your buzzword of choice here). There was only one option of each item, usually from cost effective brands (meaning: highly processed stuff).

I admit I didn’t look for exhaustively for supposedly “healthy” things, as I was more interested in enjoying the trip and surviving fatigue than worrying what I was going to eat during such a short period as 4 days of my life. But I came back home feeling that we in London live in a kind of a bubble. (which is how I felt when I went to Brazil last year as well)

I really plan to help expand the bubble as much as I can, but being reminded that it is in fact a bubble and the rest of the world may be more worried about these things is always good to keep some sense of perspective.

The price of food

The other day I went on a hike and spent some time talking to a guy who works in the City, buys all his food from the Notting Hill farmer’s market and has no idea that £3 for two bowls of yogurt is a bit over the budget for most people.

We both agreed that it is important to buy the best food we can and so on, but the conversation reminded me how some people (especially when they work in the City and are really well paid) can lose contact with the real world of real people.


Me (remembering that when I used to live in a scholarship I’d visit Notting Hill farmers market as a curiosity, cross the street and buy my stuff in Tesco): do you realize that more than £2 for 2 pints of milk £3 for yogurt and £5 for 2 small steaks is too expensive for people who make, say 25k or 30k a year, and have a family?

Guy: …

Me: 30k a year is not a lot of money, but it’s not that bad, either. But how are you supposed to feed a family of four with this money? Fresh organic food, fruits and vegs are completely out of question, so people end up having processed food and sausages instead.

(I cringe when I think of how much it must cost to feed 2 adults and 2 kids on farmer’s market food. I have no idea but I’m sure it’s not a beautiful figure)

Guy: People making this maybe shouldn’t have 2 kids.

Me: …

And then the conversation derailed to other topics like banks, mortgages and all those things City people like to talk about.

Well, the point is (if there is any point in this rambling blog post) that most people – even if they have a reasonable number of children and make a reasonable amount of money, and can’t be classified as poor – they can’t afford good food!

Even if they want, and they think it is important. (I know some people just prefer to eat crap to save money for designer clothes, but I’m not talking about this).

(end of pointless rambling blog post.)

US companies like Dannon (American subsidiary of Danone), General Mills (maker of Yoplait) will ban synthetic hormones in their dairy products. rBST, recombinant bovine somatotropin, is a syntetic hormone that increases milk production by cows in 16% according to the producer of the product, Elanco (the animal health arm of Eli Lilly).

Both companies said that they will phase out all products made from treated cows, selling exclusively products hormone-free. They claim the decision is not based in any scientific or health analysis, but simply because consumers demanded. (after all, FDA says that milk from treated cows is absolutely similar to milk from rBST-free cows).

Wal-Mart said their own line, Best Value (or something like that), is already rBST-free since last year. rBST has been used for 15 years, in the US and several other countries, but is forbidden in Europe and other places (I don’t remember now, but Google it, and they will come).

Posilac, as rBST is sold in US

Posilac, as rBST is sold in US


My opinion?

1) 15 years is not that long a period. We still don’t know the health consequences of having treated milk in the long term. And my totally un-scientific feeling is that increasing production by 16% per cow is a huge feat, and therefore the product may not be as innocent as people want us to believe. But again, no scientific basis for that.

2) There have been several changes in legislation is the US, like a bill to ban routine use of antibiotics in livestock that is being discussed in the Congress right now. Consumers are more and more concerned about food safety.

Perhaps the current climate will lead to substantial changes in the law, and if this happen, instead of having to deal with phase out schedules established by other people, these companies prefer to do it by themselves, their way and in their timescale. In this case, if legislation changes (as we don’;t know if it will really happen), Dannon, General Mills and Wal-Mart will be in a much better position.

Otherwise, why wouldn’t they keep one cheaper line of products from treated cows in their lines?