Hog Farmers Rue Swine Flu

Name Incites Fears About Virus, Hurts Pork Industry

August 21, 2009|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

Jennifer Debnam cringes every time she hears a television report or reads a newspaper article about the H1N1 flu pandemic and - inevitably - comes to the part where the disease is called "swine flu."

Debnam raises 12,000 hogs a year on her family's Kent County farm and she, like others in the industry, is losing megabucks this year - which they attribute to the misperception that you can catch flu from eating pork chops or a plate of ribs. Exports (and prices) are down sharply as Russia and China have put major restrictions on American pork products after questioning the health of the nation's hog population, experts said.

With the H1N1 virus back in the news - as the federal government develops a vaccine to protect against it; as kids return to school, where it is expected to spread quickly; as the traditional flu season nears - the pork industry is going on the offensive out of concern that it could keep taking hits every time someone calls the disease swine flu.

"Pork is safe to eat," said Chris Chinn, a fifth-generation hog farmer in the northeastern corner of Missouri. "I keep contacting my local news stations. I send e-mails to the major networks. We can't get the people who don't have a direct link to agriculture to realize the harm that is having. They don't realize what impact that name has had."

Swine flu is the name the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization gave the respiratory virus when it first emerged this spring. The new strain has some genetic markings derived from pigs, but it also has genetic fingerprints from humans and birds.

While efforts have been made by health officials in recent months to make H1N1 the common nomenclature - precisely because of concerns of farmers - it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue and just hasn't stuck. And its use has been confusing, leaving some wondering if there are two new flu strains to fear, H1N1 and swine flu.

"To avoid confusion, we always try to call it H1N1, but in parentheses, swine flu, so people know what we're talking about," said David Paulson, a spokesman for Maryland's health department. "You've got to figure a lot of people already understand it as swine flu, so you have to use both."

He doesn't want to disparage hogs, but he worries that otherwise, Marylanders would not get the important public health messages his department is sending out.

"I do understand the pork producers' concerns, and H1N1 is accurate and appropriate, but not everyone still today understands we're talking about the same illness," Paulson said.

The Baltimore Sun has used the two terms interchangeably in its coverage, a decision made because the virus is colloquially known by its porcine nickname.

In other countries, some have referred to the virus as Mexican flu, because of where the outbreak began. The World Health Organization is now calling it the pandemic flu.

Early on in the outbreak, the nation's agriculture secretary assured people that H1N1 is not a food-borne illness, saying there is no risk in eating American pork. Besides, the H1N1 virus has not been found in American hogs.

For two years, with the recession stretching around the globe, the U.S. hog industry has been struggling. Last year, the major culprit was high feed and fuel prices.

Farmers expected a rebound in time for this summer's grilling season, only to encounter more supply than demand when people started cutting back on pork, though no consumption data was available yesterday.

Debnam said her family was selling hogs for about 60 cents a pound two years ago; the price last week was 37 cents a pound. This week, with swine flu back in the news, they're getting 33 cents a pound.

Not all of that is because of the flu, she said. The economy is playing a role as well.

"Consumers are worrying about whether they should eat pork, and the whole industry is suffering," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Pork Producers Council. In Maryland, there are fewer than a dozen farms that make their living off hog production. "If it was called avian flu, it would be affecting the poultry industry."

Dr. Ronald L. Plain, a University of Missouri agricultural economist, said hog producers have lost half a billion dollars since April. Officials with the American Meat Institute, a trade group, and the president of the National Pork Producers Council said this week that losses are projected to exceed $1 billion by the end of the year.

Plain said some governments used the swine flu scare as an excuse to limit American imports, which sent prices downward.

"It's an easy problem to fix," Plain said. "Stop calling it the swine flu. Stop misleading and confusing people."

Reporters who cover H1N1 got a blast e-mail this week from the meat institute, saying, "Earlier this year, media reports were alarmist and frequently used the inaccurate term 'swine flu' to describe this particular strain." The letter was something of a preventive strike, said meat institute spokeswoman Janet M. Riley, in hopes of squelching the use of the name.

Hoot said she is in contact with pork producers from around the country and that some have written wish lists for their state governments to help them during this difficult time.

"One is to have their governors come out and say, 'I'm having pork chops tonight,' just to allay fears," she said.

Said Debnam, the Kent County hog farmer: "I hope we can get the message out that it's not a food-borne disease, because we want people to eat pork."

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