The discovery last weekend of the H1N1 Influenza A flu virus in an Alberta pig herd is the latest blow for Canada’s hog farmers already reeling from a barrage of bad news.
The so-called swine flu spreading around the world had already disrupted markets and created a public image problem for pork producers, even though the disease hadn’t even been identified in pigs.
“It adds uncertainty in a marketplace where prices were already going down,” said Andrew Dickson, Manitoba Pork Council general manager.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency last Saturday confirmed that a swine herd in Alberta had caught the virus from a worker who recently travelled to Mexico, the epicentre of the disease.
The herd was quarantined and the pigs were recovering, CFIA reported.
It is the first known case of the virus infecting swine. Previously,
“We were just about to turn over a dollar and here we go again.”
– JOHN PREUN, SELKIRK PRODUCER
the disease, although called swine flu, had only affected people.
China immediately banned imports of pork from Alberta while other countries stepped up surveillance of imported Canadian pork and live pigs.
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said the U. S. market is secure, at least for now.
“I have spoken to American Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to make our American neighbours aware of the situation. He has assured me that Canadian hog producers will continue to have access to the American market. We will continue to work with our American partners as we deal with this issue,” Ritz said in a statement.
Federal officials emphasized the Alberta case was contained and there was no threat to human or animal health.
The World Health Organization stressed there was no recommendation to cull pigs anywhere in the world and pork is safe for consumption.
Dr. Wayne Lees, Manitoba’s chief veterinarian, said the fact that the virus can spread to pigs is no surprise, since it is a hybrid of swine, human and bird flu genetics.
Subclinical influenza is fairly common in swine and the fact that this virus can affect pigs is no cause for alarm, Lees said.
“It seems to be a relatively mild disease in people and it looks like it’s a pretty mild disease in pigs. I have no evidence at this point that would cause me to change that view.”
Although officials now use the disease’s scientific name Influenza A H1N1, “swine flu” has become so ingrained in the public mind that an international pork panic is on the loose.
The Egyptian government ordered all pigs in the country killed to keep out swine flu. Egypt, a predominantly Muslim country, has between 250,000 and 400,000 pigs raised by the Coptic Christian community.
International bans cut U. S. pork exports by eight to 12 per cent and Canadian exports by five to 10 per cent, according to industry officials. As of last week, at least seven countries had imposed bans on Canadian swine and/or pork.
“These trade actions are without scientific merit,” said Lees. “This is not a food safety issue.”
Preun and his fellow hog producers were finally starting to see markets recover after suffering over two years of losses from depressed prices, high feed costs, a strong Canadian dollar and, most recently, U. S. country-of-origin labelling.
“It’s so frustrating. We were just about to turn over a dollar and here we go again,” said Preun, who also chairs the Manitoba Pork Marketing Co-op.
At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, hog futures were down the daily limit early last week, with a similar effect on the cash side. Producer prices took a 10 per cent hit, translating into a loss of $12 to $13 per finished animal.
“We were just below breakeven before that happened. We’re probably losing about 15 bucks an animal this week,” Preun said April 30 before news of the Alberta case broke.
Industry officials expressed exasperation at how hog producers have been caught up in a crisis they are not responsible for.
“Common sense would suggest this is hysteria and cooler heads will prevail. But there’s not much that makes sense about this,”said Perry Mohr, Manitoba Pork Marketing Co-op general manager.
The Canadian Pork Council said it was considering a possible campaign to reassure people that pork is safe to eat.
“We’re encouraging Canadians to rally behind the pork industry as they did with BSE,” said Gary Stordy, a CPC spokesperson.
Kevin Grier, a livestock analyst with the George Morris Centre in Guelph, Ontario, said it could take several weeks to gauge the actual result of the swine flu panic on retail sales of pork.
Lees urged producers to maintain tight biosecurity and keep sick people out of barns until they recover.
Dickson was livid to learn that a producer allowed a CBC television crew into his hog barn April 28 to shoot footage for a news story. That could have become a major biosecurity problem if the crew members had been to a hospital before entering the barn, Dickson said.
A CBC news official said the crew had not visited a hospital or another hog farm before filming and that everyone wore protective clothing inside the barn. [email protected]