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Hog Industry Fights Against Swine Flu Backlash

“Importers from other countries are really nervous about buying right now.”

– JURGEN PREUGSCHAS, CPC

Canadians are being urged to eat more pork as the hog industry mounts a publicity drive against a backlash from the H1N1 Influenza A virus that has become known as swine flu.

The Canadian Pork Council and its marketing arm Pork Marketing Canada are conducting a national campaign to encourage Canadians to eat their way out of a pork industry crisis.

The CPC and its provincial organizations are trying to build consumer confidence by insisting the so-called swine flu does not affect pork and the meat is safe to eat.

Producers complain their product is getting a bad rap from paranoia fuelled by intensive media coverage of the flu which originated in Mexico and has spread worldwide.

Politicians took up farmers’ cause last week as Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and other federal cabinet ministers helped serve pork at an open-air barbecue on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Manitoba Agriculture Minister Rosann Wowchuk held her own pork barbecue at the provincial legislature Monday. Other provinces were expected to follow.

CONFIDENCE SHAKEN

Public confidence in pork suffered a blow last week following the discovery of the Influenza A H1N1 virus in a herd of pigs in Alberta. A worker returning from Mexico is believed to have transmitted the virus to the animals.

Officials have since moved to euthanize 500 pigs from that herd, stressing the cull was induced by overcrowding related to the quarantine placed on the herd, not the disease itself.

Industry officials had high praise for the affected producer, Arnold Van Ginkel, who voluntarily reported influenza-like symptoms in his herd coupled with the fact that a worker in his barn had recently returned from Mexico with flu-like symptoms.

“In addition to Arnold Van Ginkel, we would like to thank Alberta Pork, Alberta Agriculture and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for their quick and efficient handling of the impending overcrowding issue on the farm,” says Jurgen Preugschas, chair of the Canadian Pork Council. “Thanks are also due to Van Ginkel’s neighbours and industry partners for their ongoing support of the Van Ginkel family and for respecting and protecting the privacy of the family until they were ready to be publicly identified.”

FALLOUT

It was the first reported case of the virus spreading from people to pigs. And immediately producers began worrying about the fallout on their industry.

Preugschas said Canadians are stepping up to the plate to support hog producers, much as they did during BSE in 2003, when eating beef practically became a civic duty.

CPC polls suggest Canadians aren’t buying the media hype, which only increased after the Alberta case emerged, he said.

“Over 80 per cent of the people (we’ve polled) think this whole thing is totally and completely blown out of proportion. They feel that the swine industry is being totally mistreated on this,” said Preugschas, who farms at Mayerthorpe, Alberta.

But if consumers at home support Canadian pork, some overseas do not.

China banned pork from Alberta after the flu showed up in pigs, prompting Ritz to threaten a World Trade Organization action if the ban continued.

El Salvador, Honduras, Ukraine and the Philippines banned Canadian pork at the start of the flu outbreak, although the Philippines lifted its ban last week.

EXPORTS HURT

Canadian pork exports have dropped 10 to 15 per cent since the discovery of the H1N1 flu virus and its subsequent spread around the world, according to Canada Pork International.

Preugschas said the Chinese ban is not a big deal, since Alberta ships only a little pork to China.

But the psychological impact had a big effect on hog futures markets. Producers are now losing $25 to $30 per finished pig, although Preugschas acknowledged the increasing value of the Canadian dollar also contributed to the price drop.

Overseas pork importers are said to be leery of placing orders for Canadian pork for fear the flu scare will scare off buyers at home. “It’s really creating uncertainty. Even pork that’s on the water already, there’s some fear it may not get accepted. Traders are afraid to put containers on the water because they don’t know how their country may react once they get there,” Preugschas said.

Another concern is that slumping exports will cause pork supplies to back up in Canada and create further price erosion, he said.

MORE LOSSES

The flu’s impact on markets couldn’t have come at a worse time for the hog industry. Preugschas said producers were just getting to the break-even point on their costs after losing money for over two years. “Our industry is in extreme financial stress and this extra shock is very, very difficult for our members.”

The pork panic wasn’t helped by a World Health Organization official who said meat from infected pigs should not be consumed. “Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead should not be processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances, Jorgen Schlundt, the WHO’s director of food safety, said in an e-mail to a news agency.

“While it is possible for influenza viruses to survive the freezing process and be present on thawed meat, there are no data available on the survival of Influenza A/H1N1 on meat, nor any data on the infectious dose for people.”

The WHO, FAO and OIE later issued a joint statement saying that “(i)nfluenza viruses are not known to be transmissible to people through eating processed pork or other food products derived from pigs.” (With files from Reuters) ro[email protected]

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