Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Smithfield blamed for swine flu by Mexican press

A nursing sow at a factory hog farm in North Carolina.
photo by Sally Kneidel

I got a call Wednesday morning from a reporter in Europe who's doing a story about the connection between Smithfield's hog operations in the Mexican town of Perote (in the state of Veracruz) and the outbreak of swine flu in Mexico. The Perote factory farm, operated under a Smithfield subsidiary called Granjas Carroll, raises 950,000 hogs per year, according to Smithfield's corporate website.

I had heard the connection between Smithfield and the recent outbreak of swine flu mentioned on the Jim Lehrer News Hour both Monday and Tuesday (April 27, 28) but I haven't seen the connection in a U.S. print media yet. Mexican newspapers are definitely blaming Smithfield, papers such as this one in Vera Cruz and this one in Mexico City.

The reporter who called me said he'd heard that I had been inside a Smithfield factory farm here in North Carolina where I live (true) and wanted to know what it was like. So I told him. I've talked about that visit on this blog before and will later again later this week.

As you probably know, this new H1N1 "swine flu" strain—a virus with recombined pieces of swine, avian, and human viruses—is suspected of infecting 2,498 people in Mexico and killing 168. For an unknown reason, the infections in Mexico have caused more serious disease than infections in the U.S. or elsewhere. As of Thursday morning (April 30), 93 confirmed cases have occurred in the U.S., but only one death. The World Health Organization and other sources have warned that the outbreak could reach global pandemic levels....or could fizzle out.

I was not surprised when I first heard that Smithfield Foods might be involved in the swine flu situation. After researching our books Veggie Revolution and Going Green, both of which are in part about factory farms, I know something about how Smithfield operates, about their priorities.

Smithfield is the world’s largest hog producer. The corporation operates the world's largest hog-processing plant (slaughtering and packaging) on the bank of North Carolina's Cape Fear River, in the tiny town of Tar Heel, NC. The workers in the plant slaughter more than 32,000 hogs every day. NC has more hogs than any other state, except Iowa, most of which are raised by huge factory farms under contract to Smithfield on the low-income coastal plain of NC.

Why North Carolina? Land is cheap. Our climate is moderate, so the hog-confinement sheds require modest heating bills and cooling bills, if any. Our environmental regulations are slack; enforcement is sporadic. So when those 10-acre hog-waste lagoons spill or rupture, no one pays much attention to the brown slime oozing downhill to the nearest surface waters. No one except the neighbors.

But most inviting of all to Smithfield and other meatpackers, North Carolina is the least unionized state in the United States. Labor is cheap! The rapid influx of immigrants from Mexico has made the situation even sweeter for employers such as the Smithfield Corporation, whose only consideration is shaving pennies off of production costs. This allows them to offer the cheapest cuts of meat, to outcompete other meatpackers and secure the business of high-volume retailers such as Wal-Mart. Which maximizes profits for Smithfield's shareholders. That's what it's all about. The shareholders.

Latin American immigrants are desirable employees because they don't complain about the extremely dangerous production line down in Tar Heel, where income is measured by carcasses and cuts per minute. Undocumented immigrants are the most attractive employees of all - if they complain or lose a finger or cripple a hand, a threat of deportation or firing will silence the complaint right quick. To read interviews with Smithfield and Tyson workers in North Carolina, check out the excellent research document by Human Rights Watch entitled Blood, Sweat, and Fear. You can find different copies of it by googling the name of the document.

As I mentioned to the reporter who called yesterday, I suspect that the swine raised by Smithfield in Vera Cruz are in sheds that have open sides. Mexico is hot. If the sheds didn't have open sides, they'd have to be air-conditioned. I've seen hog sheds on factory farms here in NC with 40,000 hogs crammed neck and neck, the sows in spaces too tight to even turn around or stretch or groom themselves. Those closed metal sheds would get very hot with a tropical or subtropical sun beating down. I know that poultry factory farms in tropical countries such as Viet Nam have open sides to save money on cooling costs. Here in NC, with a less extreme climate, animals can survive in sheds that are sealed and windowless, safe from public scrutiny. A few exhaust fans will create an adequate breeze for cooling in summer.

I'm betting it turns out that the sheds in Veracruz are open on the sides and that hogs and chickens are raised on the same property (as is often the case on Smithfield farms in the Southeast that we visited). If the sheds in Veracruz are open-sided, wild birds can fly back and forth between the chicken and hog sheds, eating the chow that falls on the floor, leaving their virus-laden droppings to be munched, and carrying viruses back and forth between the sheds, allowing a jumble of bird and pig viruses to mutate in the pigs into a virus that can infect humans. Pigs are more likely to brew and harbor a new virus that can infect humans, because as mammals, they are more closely related to us than birds are.

But we'll see. Maybe it'll turn out that Smithfield isn't involved at all. Or maybe the corporate-dominated U.S. media will downplay any involvement. Either way, I'm interested in seeing how it develops. And I'm hoping very much that the swine flu peaks soon and then fizzles into oblivion.

Sally Kneidel, PhD

See this post on BasilandSpice

Keywords:: Smithfield swine flu Vera Cruz Perote Sally Kneidel hog farm factory hog farm factory farm virus

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mama monkeys give in to tantrums...when others are watching

Photo by Stuart Semple
Female rhesus macaques and their babies cluster amiably, but an infant tantrum can disrupt the scene

Have you ever been in a public place when your toddler throws a tantrum? I have and it's pretty embarrassing. Not because of the crying, per se, but because onlookers may glare. In fact, I admit to occasionally looking with disapproval myself at other parents who ignore their babies' loud distress. It's distressing to me to listen to it.

Does the presence of disapproving onlookers have any effect on how human moms react to tantrums? You bet.

Turns out the same dynamic goes on in troops of monkeys.

Behavioral scientist Stuart Semple & his colleagues studied monkey tantrums and bystander reactions by watching rhesus macaques that roam freely on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico. Baby monkeys wanting to be nursed when mom wasn’t willing often started shrieking. For more than 300 outbursts of baby crying, the scientists noted which other monkeys, if any, were within two meters. The team also noted how mom, baby and the bystanders interacted.

The researchers found that the monkey mothers are twice as likely to let a howling infant have its way during very public tantrums than during more private moments, says Stuart Semple of Roehampton University in London.

Not a bad decision on mom’s part. A baby rhesus monkey makes a high-pitched, grating shriek that Semple calls “pretty harsh stuff.” Onlookers get restless and irritable; in fact, a mom and unhappy baby are 30 times more likely to suffer aggression from a bystander during a crying bout than they would in quiet times. Onlookers within two meters made threatening gestures, or even chased, grabbed or bit the mother or the infant.

Most of the aggression came from monkeys that weren't close relatives and outranked mom in the social hierarchy. Her relatives proved more tolerant.

When moms and babies weren’t close to other monkeys, rebuffed babies that started shrieking were allowed to nurse 39 percent of the time, the researchers found. With just relatives nearby, the babies’ luck rose to 53 percent. But with unrelated onlookers that outranked mom in the dominance hierarchy, babies won the tantrum 81 percent of the time.

Photo by Stuart Semple
If baby cries when they're alone, the tantrum has only a 39% chance of changing mom's mind.

Mom herself gets agitated by the baby’s crying. Analyzing records of mothers' behavior, the researchers calculated that a female on average was 400 times more likely to get aggressive toward her baby when it was crying than when it wasn't. Wow! That surprised me! Must be lots of adult monkeys out there with unresolved "issues" with mom! I tend to think of non-human mammals as always being kind and attentive to their young. But I guess not...

Studies of communication often focus on just two parties, the one sending the message and the intended receiver, Semple says. But the real world is full of other eyes and ears, ones that senders and receivers often react to. “We need to start thinking about communication in more realistic terms,” he says.

Research has found that nonhuman primates pay attention to eavesdropping bystanders, “but this is the first demonstration that communication between mother and infant is affected by an audience,” says behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago.

Other baby primates besides humans and macaques throw tantrums, says behavioral biologist Liesbeth Sterck of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The Thomas langurs she watches certainly do. However, she points out that langurs do more "allomothering," caring for infants other than their own, than rhesus macaques do. That behavior may affect the dynamics in this and other species, she says.

Semple and his colleagues report online March 10 in
Proceedings of the Royal Society B. time.

Source: Susan Milius. Public tantrums defeat monkey moms too. Science News. April 11, 2009. Vol. 175 #8

Keywords:: monkey behavior rhesus macaques Stuart Semple Sally Kneidel maternal behavior monkey aggression primate behavior primate aggression primate mothering

Links to some of my previous posts on this blog about monkeys and chimps:
(to find others, enter "primates" in the search bar above)

Angry chimp reveals "uniquely human" trait

Monkeys and parrots pouring in from the jungle

Almonds or pizza? Capuchins are smarter than we thought

Exciting new discovery: chimps' short-term memory is better than humans'

Chimps share the human trait of altruism

Monkeys can estimate numbers as well as Duke students

U.S. labs import thousands of wild-caught primates

Chimps and gibbons have human elements to their speech

Research shows older females preferred as mates

Top 6 ways to protect wildlife from commercial trade

Wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism

Monkeylala (by Ken Kneidel)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Lice from fish farms attack wild salmon

Wild young salmon burdened with fish-farm lice
Image credit: Alexandra Morton, Science News
Humans wolf down more than 9 million metric tons of farmed fish every year. Lots of consumers believe farmed fish are a more eco-friendly diet choice than wild fish, many of which are declining due to overharvesting and climate change. But a growing body of scientific studies suggest that fish farms, or aquaculture pens, are not friendly at all to aquatic environments or consumers. Fish in crowded pens, just like livestock in crowded pens, are prone to illness and parasites. Farmed fish are customarily doused with fungicides, parasite medicines, antibiotics, and dyes to render their flesh an appetizing color. All of these substances leak out into the surrounding waters.

One recent study, presented February 15 at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, concluded that fish farms in the Pacific Northwest are dangerous to wild salmon. When inch-long young pink salmon and chum salmon swim down the area's coastal rivers toward the ocean, many pass fish farms or aquaculture pens in coastal inlets. These wild juveniles often pick up sea lice that are abundant in the crowded aquaculture pens and drift outside the pens.

The lice suck blood from the tiny fish, and the wounds are also an opening for harmful bacteria and viruses. According to Martin KrkoŇ°ek of the University of Washington in Seattle, mortality to wild young salmon passing by lice-infested fish farms can be as high as 95 percent.

In addition to making the young fish sick, the parasite load also affects their predator-avoidance behaviors, so that the young salmon are more likely to be eaten by predatory birds and bigger fish. Experiments have shown that while healthy young salmon dart away from a bird diving into the water, the lice-laden youngsters take longer to seek shelter and are thus more vulnerable. The lice-burdened little salmon are also less likely to seek shelter inside a fish school, straggling along on the outside of the school instead, where they are quickly picked off by predatory fish.

Says Felipe Cabello of New York Medical College in Valhalla, who also presented at the conference, fish farms are the new frontier of excessive antibiotic use. Factory farms for livestock have long been criticized for feeding 70% of the United States' antibiotics to poultry, hogs, and cattle simply for weight gain, a practice that contributes to the growing immunity of bacteria to antibiotics. Fish farms are now exacerbating the problem.

Fish farming was once seen as a way to avoid overharvesting wild fish, and to feed the world’s growing population. But many scientists now say that farms should concentrate on shellfish and on fish that are low on the food chain. Farming carnivores such as salmon doesn't make sense, because more fish must be taken from oceans to feed the farmed salmon than is produced by the farms.

John Volpe of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, who also presented at the conference, is on a research team that’s trying to assess the sustainability of aquaculture. The Global Aquaculture Performance Index evaluates a country’s fish farms using several parameters, such as water quality and the amount of disease and parasites. The global production of farmed fish is growing, and most of the farmed fish are high in the food chain and need to be fed other fish. It's not sustainable, nor does it make sense. "It's farming the tigers of the sea," Volpe says.

Source: Rachel Ehrenberg. "Lice-laced salmon are easy dinner." Science News. March 14, 2009.

For more information on fish farms, see our book Going Green and our previous post on the subject. Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post now syndicated on Fox Business online

Keywords:: salmon fish farms aquaculture sustainability Sally Kneidel fish lice Science News antibiotic immunity Fox Business

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Is sitting too much a disease? It is for me.

I spend a lot of time sitting at the computer, at work and at home. It hurts my back, and lately it's been a factor in my gaining weight. I read in the paper this week that some doctors now believe sitting is so unhealthy you could call it a disease. I believe it. I feel it!

Interactivity research, the science of studying our sedentary existence, suggests that our bodies go into something like a computer's sleep mode when we're slumped at the computer or slouched on the couch watching TV.

A survey of more than 6,000 American adults revealed that we spend about 8 hours a day in a chair. When we sit for so long, our fat-burning enzymes stop working. We may be burning an average of 1,000 fewer calories daily than a generation ago.

It's also well-documented, as any psychologist will tell you, that exercise can be a powerful contributor to our emotional well-being.

What's the solution? Walk as much as you can, even if it means walking up and down the halls at work every couple hours. The more active you are, the more of a routine it becomes. We're creatures of habit, and sitting is a damaging routine.

A book that may be a useful resource: Move a Little, Lose a Lot by Dr. James Levine, who directs the Active Life research team at the Mayo Clinic. The book is co-authored by Selene Yeager.

"Sit too much? Walk it off"
Charlotte Observer, April 10, 2009.

Keywords: sitting too much weight gain fat Kneidel Sally Kneidel

Friday, April 10, 2009

Our mantises hatched! Great for the garden!

Sadie Kneidel at age 6, with an adult praying mantis full of eggs. Photo by Sally Kneidel.

We used to keep praying mantises a lot, back when I was a science teacher and the kids were little. I used the picture of Sadie above in a book I wrote for teachers in 1993: Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method. This particular mantis was one of our favorites, she was quite tame. She laid her egg case soon after the picture was taken and then died, as they always do after they've reproduced. Just like the spider Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. But when her egg case hatched the following spring, we raised her youngsters in one of my classes. When school was out for summer, we released them all outdoors.

Ken (my husband) is still teaching biology, and last fall he found a praying mantis egg case on a twig. He broke the twig off and put it in a "sleeve cage." He left the cage outside all winter, so the eggs would hatch at the proper time, in spring. (Indoor heat will speed their development and make them hatch unnaturally early, in mid-winter.)

Yesterday (April 10) something exciting happened - our mantis egg case in the sleeve cage hatched!

The sleeve cage on our deck. The sleeve lets you put your hand inside without taking the lid off. Photo by Sally Kneidel.

The mantis hatchlings inside. The egg case is visible on the twig in the center. The little specks on the mesh lid are the hatchlings. (Click on photo to enlarge.) Photo by Sally Kneidel

The mantis nymphs emerging from the egg case. Photo by Sally Kneidel.

Just-hatched mantises wandering around the sleeve cage. Photo by Sally Kneidel

The young mantises don't eat for the first day or two after hatching. We give them water by spraying a fine mist onto the sides of the cage; they'll drink the droplets. (Adults will readily drink from a spoon, while sitting on your hand!) Today Ken fed them for the first time. They're predators, and have to eat live insects. Ken gave them some fruit flies that he raised on banana mush, in a little vial. You can buy the vials, flies, and dried banana flakes from a science supply company. Sleeve-cage too.

A vial of banana mush and fruit flies. You can see the flies on the side of the vial just below the sponge. Photo by Sally Kneidel.

Or you can catch your own fruit flies by putting a rotting fruit in an open jar on its side, outdoors. When the jar has lots of fruit flies in it, slap the lid on fast. Then put the jar in the refrigerator for a few minutes until the flies slow down. Then you can dump them into the cage with the hatchlings. For very small mantises, fruit flies are a good size. But as the mantises grow, they'll start to eat each other. That's the time to either separate them or release them outdoors.

Praying mantis egg cases are often sold as "natural pest control" for gardens. As indiscriminate predators, they go after any and all insects that are eating your vegetables. So let them go in the garden! Of course, you can't do this if you're using pesticides, which will kill the mantises too.

We'll be letting our little mantises go in our garden in a little while, after Ken has shared them with his biology classes. He uses them to talk about population growth, metamorphosis, predation and competition, ecological interactions between species, and so on. After we turn them loose, I hope they stay close by as they mature over the summer. If we're lucky, a few of them will survive to lay egg cases in our yard. And we'll get to repeat the treat of mantis hatching day next year too!

Male mantis eating. (Males are slender and fly.) Courtesy of

Adult mantis. Note spines on front legs for holding prey.
Courtesy of

For more info on raising mantises:

Sally Kneidel, PhD. Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method. Fulcrum Publishing.

Sally Kneidel, PhD. Pet Bugs. John Wiley & Sons.

Keywords: mantis praying mantis natural pest control biological pest control garden pests teaching metamorphosis teaching with mantises raising mantises mantis egg case Creepy Crawlies Pet Bugs Sally Kneidel fruit flies sleeve cage homeschool science lesson

Saturday, April 04, 2009

I visited the builders of SunGarden Houses, lovely passive-solar homes

A SunGarden House under construction. Landscaping is added when construction is finished. Note the durable steel roof and exterior walls covered with low-maintenance stucco.

I spent most of this past week in Chapel Hill and Durham on business, and I stayed the nights with my friends Kathleen Jardine and Jim Cameron. We had a blast. On Wednesday I toured one of the homes that their company SunGarden Houses is currently building.

Kathleen and Jim are my hero homebuilders. They build highly durable, gorgeous, passive-solar homes in Pittsboro NC and thereabouts. They also offer their blueprints and step-by-step building instructions for sale on their web site,

Their homes use far less energy for heating, cooling, and lighting than conventional homes. They have all the charm of a French cottage, but require almost no maintenance, with their long-lasting steel roofs and tinted-concrete floors that need no polish or re-finishing ever. Because of the durability of the roof, floors, and AAC walls, these houses use fewer materials over the life of the house, and keep waste materials like shingles out of the waste stream.

The floors of tinted, scored concrete look like handsome stone or tile but are maintenance-free. A concrete floor is the best thermal mass for absorbing heat during winter days and emitting it during cold nights to help heat the home.

I love to brag about their houses because I think Kathleen and Jim are both conservation geniuses. Heating and cooling homes is one of the top 3 ways American consumers use energy, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Jim and Kathleen are living and propagating an affordable, beautiful, and green solution.

Co-designer Kathleen Jardine (right) chats with Echo, a member of the SunGarden work crew. Note again the steel roof and tinted stucco on the exterior walls. Homeowners can choose different colors for roofing, stucco, and floors.

Jim gives a final trim to a piece of piece of wood.

A lovely tile backsplash, and in the background, the wide expanse of south-facing windows that are essential for a passive-solar design.

An inviting front porch, from the built-in benches to the hand-painted tile by the window corners (click on photos to enlarge).

The front porch and optional eave decorations of the house.

One of dozens of aesthetic options for the interior.

Solar thermal panels on the south-facing roof, to heat water for domestic use and to provide radiant floor heat, via water pipes embedded in the concrete floors.

Later, after we went back to Kathleen and Jim's own SunGarden home, Kathleen and I enjoyed a glass of Malbec by the garden and burbling pond. SunGarden Houses are designed to annex the great outdoors, to increase the sense of living space.

And after THAT, we got down to some serious jammin', on Jim's guitar, keyboard, and bongos.

I love my long-time buddies Jim and Kathleen. I'm proud to know them too. Because, unlike most of us, they've found a way to make a livelihood out of protecting the planet and the atmosphere, by promoting passive-solar & durable housing. I hope Obama will get the picture and offer strong incentives for passive-solar design for everyone in this country.

To read more about Jim and Kathleen's constructions and their philosophy of green-building, check out our book Going Green or their web site,

Photos and text by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Keywords:: SunGarden Houses passive solar Kathleen Jardine Jim Cameron durable houses steel roof AAC block concrete floors