Pork Paranoia

As I am writing this, more than 140 Americans have been diagnosed with swine influenza. As international and national cases continue to escalate, uninformed consumers are misguidedly shunning pork and pork products.

Hog farmers are on the defense, refuting allegations that the outbreak is caused from eating infected pork. According to The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), no evidence indicates that swine influenza can be transmitted through food consumption – a crucial message for the pork industry to deliver.

“Swine flu is a misnomer,” said C. Larry Pope, the CEO of Smithfield Foods, the leading processor and marketer of pork and processed meats in the U.S. “They need to be concerned about influenza, but not eating pork.”

Many health organizations also take issue with the term “swine flu” because of its scientific inaccuracy. Instead, the CDC refers to the illness by its scientific name, H1N1 flu. The virus that is circulating includes genetic components of human, avian and swine origin.

Swine flu – a common respiratory disease in pigs during winter months – mirrors the human flu strain. It is so common, in fact, that 30 to 50 percent of the U.S. swineherd have been affected with some form of the virus. Multiple varieties of the strain exist.

The current outbreak, however, is not the result of consuming or interacting with contaminated pork.

"This is not a food-borne illness virus,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “It is not correct to refer to it as swine flu because really that's not what this is about."

Regardless of its origins, hog farmers are feeling the effects of the outbreak. Farmers producing corn and soybeans as animal feed are also threatened by economic loss from decreased demand. Hog prices are plummeting as countries are banning U.S. pork imports, and grocery chains and restaurants are decreasing their pork orders to counteract an implicit, misapprehension for the other white meat. The pork and animal-feed industries are experiencing what the beef industry endured with “Mad Cow Disease.”

Part of the problem is people lack the necessary perspective and panic trumps logic. Every year, thousands of Americans die from the common flu, but the 24-hour news cycle chooses to focus its attention on H1N1 instead, most likely because of the novelty of its recent advent. There is no arguing the news merit of people becoming sick, but the public’s response could potentially create a panic that could do more harm than good.

Despite overwhelming evidence of the safe consumption of pork, the $15 billion American pork industry is in jeopardy. As summer approaches, a usual high-time for pork because of the grilling season, the National Pork Producer’s Council, National Pork Board, American Meat Institute and others are working to clarify the fallacies associated with the outbreak and promote the continued consumption of pork.

Do you think the spread of H1N1 is being blown out of proportion? Is there a danger of a media-induced panic? What should hog farmers do to re-establish trust with pork consumers? How can separate farm industries work together to improve market demand for their products? Should sister industries (chicken and beef) rally for the best interests of the pork industry?

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