How bad will H1N1 hysteria impact the swine industry this fall?

We are all aware of the negative impact on our industry from the use of the term Swine Flu during last springs world wide outbreak and spread. Just last week, Korea re-opened its borders to our products and live animals, and we are still awaiting full border openings from China and Russia, following their bans.

 

While all scientific evidence supports the US position that the virus cannot be isolated in pork products (it is a respiratory disease), many countries have used this perceived health risk as reason to implement trade barriers in pursuit of other political agendas. Unfortunately, we are the industry that is getting caught in the cross-fire.

 

At the George Young Swine Health Conference held in South Sioux City, NE last week, Dr Rodger Main, Director of Operations for the Iowa State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, gave a status report on the implications of the outbreak on US production systems. One of the problems with the outbreak is that the H1N1 virus is a reportable disease in humans, but not in livestock. This means that if a patient is confirmed as having the H1N1 virus, the treating doctor must report the case to health authorities, which ultimately means reporting to the CDC (Center for Disease Control).

 

In this case, if the patient with the virus is indentified with a swine production unit, the state veterinarian will be contacted to perform a diagnostic evaluation at farm sites. The current USDA-APHIS policy is that pigs at these sites will be allowed to move to slaughter, even if they test positive for the virus, once they have fully recovered from the viral infection. Limited movements of pigs between sites will also be allowed meaning farrowing sites will be allowed to continue to wean pigs, etc. under regulatory guidance. USDA’s guidelines for state veterinarians are focused on viral containment.

 

However, on the pig side, reporting of the disease is voluntary. That is, if a sample is submitted to the Iowa State Diagnostic Laboratory, the submitting veterinarian/producer must check a box on the input form allowing the Diagnostic Laboratory to submit information about the case to CDC. At the meeting, none of the veterinarians in attendance were checking the box because none of them wanted to be associated with sample submission for the first US swine herd confirmed positive. It appears that while pigs can contract the H1N1 virus, it’s impact on pig health isn’t any worse than the many other flu strains that we’ve been faced with over the years.

 

All of this suggests a somewhat muddy picture of what will happen in the US this fall if the H1N1 virus spreads according to the predictions of public health agencies. While the regulatory process for producers is somewhat clear, what is unknown is whether packing plants will accept pigs from sites confirmed with the virus.

 

That was the problem with the herd in Alberta which had the first confirmed outbreak in swine. The public pressure on packers (make that the public fear and ignorance) was such that no packer wanted to risk their brand name being associated with this virus, even when every health agency stated that there is no risk of contracting the virus from pork products.

 

The same may be true in the US. An increasing amount of pork product in the meat case is now branded, meaning a packer has put their name on the product. Suppose Hormel, or Seaboard or other packer is identified as the purchaser of pigs that have been confirmed with the virus, even though the pigs have recovered and are cleared by USDA-APHIS for slaughter. What is the risk that shoppers in New York, or Arizona or Florida will stop buying all of their branded products because of the hysteria in the popular press, or because of Facebook or Twitter social networking inaccuracies? This is a very real risk to packers and because of this social pressure makes the consequences to the industry uncertain at best.

 

While we all hope that the virus doesn’t enter the US swine herd, if the virus spreads rapidly this fall into the US population, there is a good chance that someone who has the virus will show up for work in a finishing facility and infect the pigs. It has already happened in Canada, Australia and Argentina. Behind the scenes, our veterinarian community has been working very hard with regulatory agencies to minimize the impact on the swine industry, and the scientific information available supports their efforts. However, like welfare, the social networking of consumers and the impact of consumer decisions on packers will be the ultimate decider of our fate.

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