Daily New York Times connects, in a wide investigative article, the nowadays swine flu wave and the one that affected Romanian farms in 2007. "That particular strain affects only hogs, but scientists have found elements of swine viruses — one from Europe or Asia, the other from North America — in the genetic code of the new influenza A(H1N1) virus", NYT notes.
The newspaper shows that Smithfield - a company that claims that there are no swine flu cases among its employees or among the hogs in its farms - is involved in a joint-venture company that operats a hig farm in Mexico, very close to the place where the swine flu epidemy first burst. According to NYT, the American company managed to put up 40 farms in Romania in a very short time, thanks to the lobby campaign that involved, among others, the US ambassador to Romania, Nicholas Taubman.
The main information published by New York Times, in brief:
- The way the large farms developed in Poland and Romania, the largest East European states within the European Union, offers a perspective over the way Fortune 500 companies operate in remote places;
- Smithfield has a joint venture in a Mexican hog farm located near where United Nations scientists are investigating a potential link between pigs and the new strain of influenza in humans;
- With the exact origins of the virus still in doubt, Smithfield emphasizes that the disease has struck none of its hogs or employee;
- But Smithfield’s global approach is clear; its chairman, Joseph Luter III, has described it as moving in a “very, very big way, very, very fast.” In less than five years, Smithfield enlisted politicians in Poland and Romania, tapped into hefty European Union farm subsidies and fended off local opposition groups to create a conglomerate of feed mills, slaughterhouses and climate-controlled barns housing thousands of hogs;
- It moved with such speed that sometimes it failed to secure environmental permits or inform the authorities about pig deaths — lapses that emerged after swine fever swept through three Romanian hog compounds in 2007, two of which were operating without permits. Some 67,000 hogs died or were destroyed, with infected and healthy pigs shot to stanch the spread;
- Robert Wallace, a visiting professor of geography at the University of Minnesota says Smithfield’s global rise is part of a broader “livestock revolution that has created cities of pigs and chickens” in poorer nations with weaker regulations.
- In Romania, the number of hog farmers has declined 90 percent — to 52,100 in 2007 from 477,030 in 2003 — according to European Union statistics, with ex-farmers, overwhelmed by Smithfield’s lower prices, often emigrating or shifting to construction. In their place, the company employs or contracts with about 900 people and buys grain from about 100 farmers. In Poland, there were 1.1 million hog farmers in 1996. That number fell 56 percent by 2008, as the advent of modern farming methods transformed agriculture, according to the Polish National Agricultural Chamber;
- Smithfield farms in Romania’s Timis County are among the top sources of air and soil pollution, according to a local government report, which ranked the company’s individual farms No. 13 through No. 40. The report also indicates that methane gases in the air rose 65 percent between 2002 and 2007;
- Smithfield representatives strongly defend their methods. They say they did everything they could to quash the Romanian swine fever outbreak, and they contend the lack of licenses was an oversight. “We have learned not to assume that a government’s awareness of our plans and operations is the same as permission to keep moving forward until we have obtained all necessary permits,” Charles Griffith, a company lawyer, said in answer to written questions;
- Smithfield fine-tuned its approach in the depressed tobacco country of eastern North Carolina in the 1990s. In 2000, money started flowing from a Smithfield political action committee in that state and around the United States. Ultimately, more than $1 million went to candidates in state and federal elections. North Carolina lawmakers helped fast-track permits for Smithfield and exempted pig farms from zoning laws. As Smithfield flourished, the number of American hog farms plunged 90 percent — to 67,000 in 2005 from 667,000 in 1980. Some farm states grew wary. When Hurricane Floyd struck North Carolina in 1999, torrential rain breached six pig waste lagoons, prompting the authorities to impose a construction moratorium on new pig farms using lagoons;
- When it first arrived in Eastern Europe, Smithfield courted top politicians in both Poland and Romania, the latter a particularly poor country of 23 million with a weak government and under constant E.U. pressure over corruption. (...) In Bucharest, Smithfield turned to Nicholas Taubman, a wealthy Republican businessman who was the U.S. ambassador to Romania during the administration of President George W. Bush. Mr. Taubman escorted Smithfield’s top executives during meetings with the Romanian president and prime minister and president. “I’m from Virginia and they’re a large corporation and I know them very well,” Mr. Taubman said, noting that he had also helped Ford Motor, which had an easier time in Romania because it had the support of a government minister;
- Smithfield’s lobbyist, the Virginia firm McGuireWoods, set up a Bucharest office in 2007 to liaise between Smithfield and the Romanian government. In many ways McGuireWoods was the perfect choice; it had also represented Romania for three years to press its NATO-membership campaign;
- The connections in the upper reaches of government meant that Smithfield could weather protests from local communities. The company was fined €9,000 for spilling manure on a local highway while transporting waste from a leaking container; €35,000 for a leaking bin that seeped hog waste into soil; another €35,000 for four farms operating without permits in Arad County; and €18,500 for not preventing water pollution;
- Smithfield found it hard to overcome fallout from the swine fever outbreak that struck Cenei. At the time, hog corpses lay in heaps, and residents remember chaotic efforts to shoot and burn them. That particular strain affects only hogs, but scientists have found elements of swine viruses — one from Europe or Asia, the other from North America — in the genetic code of the new influenza A(H1N1) virus;
- Smithfield contends that “it is impossible to know” why the pigs got sick, while noting a breakdown in the supply of government-supplied swine flu vaccines. But several officials on both sides of the debate believe that Smithfield was overwhelmed by its own industrial machine and its ever multiplying pigs;
- When it came to cleanup, Smithfield again turned to special E.U. subsidies, requesting $11.5 million in compensation. But the local authorities — those with the power to dole out the money — balked at the demand, outraged that the epidemic was taking place on unlicensed farms which they accused of lax biosecurity measures.
- A special mission of the European Commission confirmed some of their complaints, finding that Smithfield had failed to submit regular reports on the deaths of its pigs and that employees moved freely between farms despite suspicions of swine fever.
- “Although we acknowledge these dysfunctions, this does not mean that our farms were operating outside the purview of Romanian authorities,” Mr. Griffith, a lawyer for Smithfield, wrote. “Our farms were operating openly and in regular, day-today contact with those authorities.”
UPDATE: Romanian Health Minister rejected all allegations published by New York Times. "It is scientifically proven that the main gene of the swine flu virus comes from the American continent", he said in a press conference on Wednesday night, reminding that Romania hasn't noted any swine flu cases in the two weeks that passed since the epidemic has burst.