Swine flu causing sweating and nausea in Washington, D.C.
By Ken Root
Identifying a new strain of flu in Mexico, that may have originated in swine and transmitted to humans, has made life very difficult for officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and for spokespersons for animal agriculture groups, primarily pork producers. At this writing, the flu is believed to be transmissible from human to human and there is no vaccine specifically designed to prevent infection. The first death in the United States has been confirmed, even though it was a Mexican boy who was brought here as a last ditch effort to save him.
The word "pandemic" has been kicked around, even though the number of cases has been small and many have recovered from the illness. Rumors have clearly outrun the facts as often happens when a potential crisis emerges. "Sell the rumor, buy the fact," is what we are seeing according to a market analyst. Live hog futures fell six dollars in the first two days, while soybeans lost fifty cents in overnight trading before coming back as more information was learned.
News media showed its capability to cover a breaking story but gave few details that clarified the origin, risk and action that should be taken. Personal media, such as Twitter and blogs, put out huge numbers of rumors and unsubstantiated claims. Some groups used the forum to expand their agenda through newslike stories and conclusions.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack briefed agricultural journalists on Tuesday morning with limited news of the source of the outbreak except "Mexico" and a concern that calling it "swine flu" would be detrimental to animal agriculture in the United States.
"Call it the H1N1 flu. Call it something other than swine flu," said an exasperated Secretary Vilsack. "I'll tell you how sensitive I am to this: I think it was the Department of Homeland Security or some one that had hogs on their website and I asked our folks to let them know that why don't you just take that picture off?"
The initial reaction that came from importers of U.S. pork was the most extreme, according to Nick Giordano with the Washington, D.C. office of the National Pork Producers Council. "Well you always get concerned that governments are going to react, not on fact but on perception. That's what happened with a couple of our markets, Russia and China." He said the Russians have banned beef as well as pork and poultry. "We've got no scientific evidence for this," according to Giordano, "We've got experts from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) the USDA and Homeland Security saying this but we've got the World Health Organization and World Organization for Animal Health, as well." Still, the markets tumbled and the public became more apprehensive.
The meat is safe
Agricultural organizations were turning their pleadings to the government, who assured them it was talking to trading partners to assure them that meat products cannot transmit the influenza and there is no risk of illness from eating meat. Consumers in the United States were posing the same questions and news media was feeding on the fallout from "swine flu" in the meatcase.
Scientists hesitant to talk before facts are known
While activists have identified the source, the vector and the culprits in the H1N1 flu outbreak, government scientists said the facts are few and the conclusions sketchy about the origin and virulence of the strain of influenza. Dr. John Clifford, Chief of Veterinary Services for the USDA was unwilling to talk about the epidemiology of the disease, primarily due to political concerns of Secretary Vilsack and others within the department.
NPPC goes public with defense of pork
The National Pork Producers Council, utilizing scientists inside and outside the organization, released information only a few days after the virus, they are calling a "hybrid," was identified as the cause of human influenza. On their website the following statements were made:
--People cannot get the hybrid influenza from eating pork or pork products.
--Most influenza viruses, including the swine flu virus, are not spread by food. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.
--There are no food safety issues related to the hybrid flu that has been identified, according to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.
--Preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs.
--This virus is different, very different from that found in pigs.
--The hybrid virus never has been identified in hogs in the United States or anywhere in the world.
--The hybrid virus is contagious and is spreading by human-to-human transmission.
As the week moves forward and the news of the epidemic begins to correct itself, there is an uneasy calm in Washington as the new administration has not been effective in assuring the public that this flu strain won't turn into a pandemic. They have also seen that reaction goes worldwide very quickly with one report from a USDA appointee that a group of American volunteers were barred from a school in Italy for fear they were carrying the virus.
As the facts become known about how the disease is spread, grain and livestock markets seem to be returning to normal, with pork being the last to show any market rebound. Hopes for returning profitability in a swine market that has been down for over a year and a half may have to wait as this unpredictable situation plays out.