Don’t get Grant Lazaruk going about H1N1. And don’t ever let him hear you call it swine flu.
The disease and its unfortunate name have been nothing but a headache for Lazaruk’s company Hytek Ltd. and its hog processing plant, Springhill Farms in Neepawa.
That’s because Hytek was recently forced to ship pork to China by way of Montreal, the St. Lawrence and the Panama Canal instead of using the much shorter western route through Vancouver.
And that’s because the Chinese wouldn’t let pork containers travel through Alberta, where the world’s only known case of H1N1 in swine was detected in April.
It makes no sense to Lazaruk, Hytek’s chief operating officer and executive vice-president. After all, H1N1 is normally a disease of people, not pigs. The virus cannot be transmitted through pork, whether raw or cooked. It certainly can’t adhere to a metal container. And in any case, containers to China don’t pass anywhere near the farm in central Alberta where the case was discovered.
But none of that matters. Because of H1N1, the Chinese have banned imports of pork from Alberta. That affects shipments of pork passing through Alberta from other provinces.
“They came up with the rule. How did they do that? I don’t know,” Lazaruk said.
The Chinese have since lifted the travel ban on pork through Alberta. That only lasted about a week anyway. But containers with pork must now be washed and disinfected before they are allowed through the province en route to the West Coast and ultimately China.
It’s inconvenient but vastly better than having to go the long way around and bear a 40 per cent increase in shipping costs in an already-depressed market, said Lazaruk.
“You don’t make money on pork at all today. So having additional costs on it just makes you lose more money.”
Springhill Farms exports “the majority of its products,” either to the United States or offshore, he said.
Lazaruk is careful when he talks about the incident. The Chinese are “very important customers to us” and he doesn’t want to offend an importer that buys a different product mix than other countries do.
Still, he wishes people wouldn’t use the term “swine flu,” especially because of the negative consumer perception about pork it has created.
The world reacted in a knee-jerk fashion when the Alberta H1N1 case came to light. Several countries briefly banned Canadian pork outright. Others banned pork from certain provinces but most embargoes have been lifted now. The most recent was Russia, which for a while refused pork from Ontario and Quebec, as well as Alberta.
But the Chinese ban on Alberta pork remained in effect as of last week, according to a Canadian Food Inspection Agency spokesperson.
That means that Hytek’s pork containers will continue to be disinfected, even though containers of other products also destined for China receive no special treatment.
The irony is not lost on Lazaruk, who continues to insist there is no relationship between pork and H1N1.
A consumer scare is the last thing the pork industry needs in addition to its other economic problems, he said.
“H1N1 on top of a world recession has been a hit on the demand side.” [email protected]