‘Swine’ flu a headache for pork producers

Dean Folkers processes a pig for a customer at a grocery store in Elma, Iowa.
The disease that most people in the United States and worldwide have come to know as "swine flu" has caused a less-publicized rumbling among the nation’s hog farmers and producers.

China and Russia have banned imports from some U.S. states and Mexico, and stock prices for the nation’s leading pork companies, Smithfield Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., took a hit. In addition, hog futures took a rare dive after initial news of the outbreak broke. The negative news, seen in a market that had already been suffering, is something the industry says could have been prevented had a more accurate name been chosen for the human disease. “This flu is being called something that it isn’t, and it’s hurting our entire industry,” said Dave Warner, communications director for the National Pork Producers Council. “It is not a ‘swine’ flu, and people need to stop calling it that … they’re ruining people’s lives.” Warner said exact dollar figures on the pork industry’s losses nationwide are not yet available. But he pointed out that the industry was already suffering before the flu outbreak. “The real issue is that anything is bad now because producers for the past 19 months have already lost money,” Warner said. “On average they’ve lost about 20 dollars a pig. So even if they lose two dollars more, it’s hard on them.

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“I’ve had producers say, ‘Look, we’re dying out here, already we’re hurting and now this on top of it.’ ” Watch a pig farmer talk of hard times » Brian Buhr is a professor at the University of Minnesota whose emphasis is in livestock markets. He says that pork is a $1.8 billion industry annually in Minnesota. On Tuesday of this week, Buhr said, the state’s pork industry took an $18 million hit. Minnesota is the nation’s third-largest pig farming state, and its health experts said Wednesday they would be calling the illness “H1N1 novel flu” from here on out. ” ‘Swine flu’ gives a connotation that really it shouldn’t have, and makes people wonder about eating pork,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan. The European Union has followed suit. “In order not to have a negative effect on our industry — especially under this crisis situation — we decided to call it ‘novel flu’ from now on,” said Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner for health. The World Health Organization announced Thursday it would stop using the term “swine flu” to avoid confusion over the danger posed by pigs. WHO will instead refer to the illness as “H1N1 influenza A.” Map: Where the flu is today » The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed to CNN that it would begin officially calling this particular influenza strain “H1N1.” However, the CDC’s Web site is still largely “swine”-centered, and the media continue to discuss “swine flu” — much to the dismay of the hog industry. Minnesota’s hog farmers and veterinary scientists say the term “swine flu” gives the impression that hogs, and thus pork products, aren’t safe. “There’s a large concern over the name [from the hog farmers’ perspective], said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers’ Association. “They just wanted it to be accurate.” Professor Marie Gramer’s primary focus is swine disease at the University of Minnesota, and she says “H1N1” is a more appropriate label for this flu, because it’s important to remember that a direct link from a pig to a human has not been established. “Swine flu” was “an unfortunate name for everybody involved in swine production, implying that the pigs were the source of this current outbreak,” Gramer said. Peter Davies, professor of epidemiology and swine medicine at the University of Minnesota, said the name “swine flu” had the potential to be misleading — and that we’ve already seen the negative effects. “We’ve seen a huge drop in the price of pork,” Davies said. “We’ve seen a lot of interruptions to commerce.”

He added that even though the name has changed from officially being called “swine flu,” it may be too little, too late for the industry. “I think it’ll take quite a while, if at all, before it trickles into the media or in the general public’s conversation.”