The U.S. Agriculture Department Monday confirmed the presence of the H1N1 virus in at least one pig tested at the Minnesota State Fair. Minnesota hog producers are concerned that the discovery of the H1N1 virus in pigs could hurt their business.
The USDA says tests at its laboratories confirm that a pig on display at the state fair had the H1N1 virus. USDA officials say it's likely the animal contracted the disease from someone who was at the event.
It's the first time H1N1 has been found in a pig in the U.S., although the virus has turned up in hogs around the world, including Canada, Argentina and Norway.
USDA officials said the infection of a "show pig" doesn't indicate an infection of commercial herds, because show pigs are in separate segments of agriculture than the swine industry.
Still, Minnesota hog producers like Don Buhl say the latest news about the virus is something to worry about.
"The reaction to it has been negative," said Buhl. "That's really our concern, is that people don't overreact."
Buhl says hog producers have been struggling with the economic side of the flu outbreak since early this year. He says farmers got bad publicity from the start, when the disease initially was labeled swine flu. It was often called that because genetic material from a hog virus is found in the composition of H1N1. Buhl says the label caused the price farmers get for their hogs to drop.
"I think that it's been misrepresented in the media really quite badly ever since it was first discovered," says Buhl. "The linkage of it to hogs is really wrong."
The disease is passed from person to person, not from animals to humans. Health officials have said pork is safe to eat.
Buhl and other hog farmers are a little miffed that they've suffered economically from a virus they have nothing to do with. He says farmers are vigilant about keeping disease out of their herds, since it increases veterinary bills and slows the growth of their hogs.
Even though H1N1 has only been found in one pig, the virus has hurt all hog farmers, mainly by reducing exports. While domestic pork consumption has held nearly steady over last year, sales to other nations have dropped by about 11 percent in that same time, according to the USDA.
USDA economist Mildred Haley says the export drop has helped keep hogs prices low, and that, in turn, has helped to extend a long economic downturn for pig producers. Haley says prices have been so low that most farmers have lost money on their hogs nearly every month for the past two years.
While farmers like Don Buhl blame the H1N1 publicity for a good share of their trouble, Haley says it's more complicated than that. She says the worldwide economic recession has probably been a bigger factor in hog farmers' problems.
"That's pretty much been the story this year," said Haley. "Just generally lower demand, really from the beginning of the year and on forward."
She says one of the biggest drops in sales has been to China. She says exports to China last year rose sharply, partly because of the economic boost the Olympics brought to that country.
She says if the latest H1N1 news hurts farmers, if could be offset by what looks like promising developments for the future. She says the number of hogs in the U.S. has declined. That reduction in supply should eventually translate into higher prices for farmers.
That would be a nice economic turn for hog producers like Don Buhl. He says the financial hard times have made hog farmers vigilant about being as efficient as possible. He says that includes keeping diseases like the H1N1 virus out of their herds.
"Between every barn, we change clothes," said Buhl. "In other words, we have a coverall and clean boots that are designated to each barn. So you're not transmitting it on your clothing. We try and keep our hands washed as we work with different groups of pigs."
The industry expected that the H1N1 virus would eventually turn up in domestic swine and had enhanced biosecurity measures to protect their pigs from people, said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Board.
A hog vaccine for the virus is being developed but isn't yet available.
Preisler said industry groups have long encouraged pork producers and their employees to get vaccinated for seasonal flu so they don't pass it to their animals, and they're encouraging them to get the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available.
Infected pigs can pass influenza viruses to other pigs in the same herd. When that happens, producers treat ill animals with aspirin to reduce fever but otherwise generally let the disease run its course through the herd, which Preisler said takes about a week.
After that, he said, they can be safely sent to slaughter or other farms.
So far, there has not been a documented case anywhere in the world of the virus traveling from hogs to people.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)