Mark Whitney

Mark Whitney

To say that the recent H1N1 influenza outbreak has been in the news some would be a severe understatement.

Whenever a worldwide health concern occurs, we certainly would expect to hear about it in the news. Unfortunately, this recent health occurrence has inadvertently caused damage to our nation’s pork industry.

The primary reason that the pork industry is undertaking additional losses is due in large part to mainstream media inaccurately using the term “swine flu” to describe the new influenza virus strain.

This virus strain, which has now been officially designated as Influenza A H1N1, does have DNA segments indicating an origin with swine influenza, but also with avian and human influenza viruses as well.

Within the first few days after initial reports came out, the World Organization for Animal Health indicated that use of the term “swine flu” was incorrect, and that an alternative naming, such as North American flu, would be more appropriate.

Early reports indicated that the virus was only spread from human to human, but the term “swine flu” that was initially used has stuck in the psyche of consumers and the general public.

Fortunately, one of the early messages also being conveyed was that pork is safe to eat. Quick responses by national and state organizations, in particular the National Pork Board, Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and others provided some damage control.

However, a recent study by Harvard University indicates that 13 percent of Americans still think that the H1N1 virus can be contracted by eating pork.

National and international concerns have negatively affected pork and grain markets. A 10 percent drop in Lean Hogs futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange over first 10 days following the initial report was observed, and pork exports into Russia and China have been halted or severely restricted as of the time of this column being written.

We have seen a slight recovery in pork prices that will hopefully continue. Following the past 18 months of red ink, with producers losing $10 to $20 head, however, we were looking for the first period of profitable prices this summer. This may not occur, especially if export trades continue to be closed or reduced.

It appears that much of the general public’s initial fear has subsided. The “pandemic” appears to be somewhat less threatening as originally reported. Fatalities appear to be much less than those that occur annually for typical influenza outbreaks (approximately 36,000 deaths last year in the United States alone), and perhaps some perspective is now taking over the initial knee-jerk responses.

A new report on a Canadian swine herd being potentially infected from an individual that had recently traveled to Mexico is not overly surprising. We know that these influenza viruses can change quite frequently, and sometimes cross species due to similarities in potential hosts.

What is interesting is that those of us in the pork industry are generally more concerned with keeping our pigs healthy, since we understand that pigs are much more susceptible to catching these types of viruses from people rather than the other way around.

So what can or should pork producers do? For the time being, keep abreast of current reports regarding H1N1, and heighten biosecurity measures to minimize any potential risk of the virus entering your herd.

If individuals have traveled to Mexico within the past month, prohibit or restrict access to animal areas. Closely observe all individuals and well as pigs for signs of influenza.

General information on H1N1, recommendations to protect your herd and links to trustworthy websites that have current information being updated continuously can be accessed through the University of Minnesota Swine Extension website at www.extension.umn.edu/swine.

As is typically the case, knowledge and understanding are key in addressing this issue versus paying too much attention to hype and potential misinformation.

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“The Pork Professor” is a monthly column created by members of the University of Minnesota Swine Extension team. This column was written by Mark Whitney, University of Minnesota Extension Service Swine Extension educator at the regional center in Mankato.