Pork producers struggle to recover from H1N1 flu scare
NPPC official advocates for rapid education about disease's origins
By DAN WHEAT
When the H1N1 virus, mislabeled as swine flu, became a national scare on April 24, 2009, Garfield, Wash., hog farmer Don VanTine was on the verge of making a profit for the first time in about two years.
"It broke prices pretty severely," he said. "Instead of having a chance to make money, we went right back down and lost money again for another three-quarters of a year."
It was his worst stretch of bad prices in 36 years of raising hogs. His wheat and barley crops saw him through, and it helped that he used his own barley as part of his hog feed. He was thinking of getting out of hogs when prices finally rose again. He made money this summer, but now higher feed prices once again are stealing his profits just like they did for two years before the H1N1 scare.
VanTine is just one of some 67,000 pork producers and affiliated processors nationwide who, more or less, went through the same scenario.
Based on April 24, 2009, futures prices, the scare cost producers about $559 million over the next three months and an additional $600 million in lost exports, mainly to China and Russia, said David Warner, director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C.
Those countries knew the virus was not swine flu and knew their consumers could not get disease from U.S. pork but took the opportunity to ban imports to give their own industries an advantage, Warner said.
The flu started in Mexico, caused several deaths and was identified as a variant of H1N1 that had strains of swine flu and avian flu, Warner said. There was a large pork operation near where the flu started, but Mexican officials found none of the virus in that operation, Warner said.
The virus was not in swine, but swine flu has an H1N1 base, he said.
"Someone called it swine flu and a couple of people in Texas, who had been to Mexico, got it and died. It gained media attention and took off from there," he said.
There was panic among some people because it was a new flu strain for which there was no immediately available vaccine.
Warner sent letters and called major media outlets to correct the notion it was connected with hogs. Some news outlets corrected themselves. Others did not.
"Pigs get flu every year like people and get sick and get over it and their meat is fine," Warner said. "It's not a blood disease in hogs or humans. It's respiratory so it doesn't get into the meat."
Influenza is a blood and meat disease in birds and poultry, he said.
But the incident wiped out the beginning of a 2009 rally in pork prices and, along with feed costs and oversupply, is why pork producers suffered losses from October 2007 until March of this year, Warner said.
The industry learned two things from the episode, Warner said.
One is to get corrective word -- in this case that it wasn't swine flu and that pork was safe to eat -- out immediately. That effort, he said, would help blunt losses even though some media insisted on continuing to call it swine flu.
The other lesson, he said, is the industry would be better served if it could say that all producers have biosecurity plans for sow barns that include such things as people taking showers when they go in and out.
Most producers have such plans but it would be better if the council could say all producers do, he said. The plans are more to protect hogs from human sickness than to protect humans from hog sickness, he said.
VanTine is a small producer of about 1,800 hogs annually from 100 sows. He said he, his son and his nephew are the only ones who enter his sow barn. He uses artificial insemination to change genetics in his herd to avoid potential diseases from boars.
He worries about another scare.
"It scared the public so bad," he said, "that even though our industry tried to get the message out, once it was called swine flu the damage was done in the first week."