Pork producers scramble as swine flu scares consumers

Hogs waiting to be sold at a coop in southern Minnesota.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

The pork industry is stressing, and government officials confirm, that pork is safe to eat.

Pork producers say it's a $2 billion-a-year business in Minnesota accounting for more than 22,000 jobs, but the arrival of swine flu in the U.S. brings with it a lot of concern for hog farmers.

If consumers shun pork it will inflict more economic pain on an industry that's already hurting.

Trading in the commodities markets yesterday reinforced industry fears that the flu outbreak will cause farmers a lot of trouble. The price of hogs fell sharply.

"You're probably talking about a five to seven percent decline," said Mark Schultz, the chief analyst at Northstar Commodity in Minneapolis.

Schultz said the swine flu outbreak will slow down pork purchases world wide.

Already China and Russia have banned pork imports from U.S. states reporting swine flu cases. Indonesia has banned all pork imports.

Schultz said the lower hog prices had a big impact as well on other farm commodities. Soybean and corn prices tumbled because traders figure there will be less demand for those grains as hog feed.

The price decline is even more frustrating because many farmers feel their industry is being unfairly blamed for a potential pandemic, Schultz said.

"It's unfortunate it's going to be labeled as swine flu right now," he said. "When really it doesn't have much of any effect on swine whatsoever."

Swine material is only part of the flu virus' makeup -- it's also believed to contain DNA from birds and humans. No one knows right now which group of material dominates in the virus, or what sort of back and forth transmission between species created the germ.

Mark Whitney, a swine expert with the University of Minnesota extension service, said it's not even known what effect the virus has on pigs.

"What's interesting is we're calling it swine influenza or a lot of people are running with that term, and in fact we haven't had any reported cases of this new H1N1 influenza virus actually being present in pigs," Whitney said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department is studying that issue, they plan to expose pigs to the virus to find out if the animals are susceptible to it.

Whitney said that despite the unknown origins of the virus hog producers are being urged to monitor their animals and workers closely. He says since disease is a threat to a farm's profits, most hog producers already have in place biosecurity measures, which includes cleaning vehicles.

"We try to do an extremely good job hygiene-wise, cleaning things. Especially if they've left the farm having them washed and disinfected prior to entering the farm again," Whitney said. "This is also why you often times see some biosecurity signs in front of hog operations asking individuals not to go onto that property."

But even on the cleanest of hog farms, the flu outbreak will likely sully the bottom line. Schultz said if the drop in hog prices continues, it will worsen what has already been a bad economic streak for hog farmers.

"The losses have been astronomical since probably October of last year, and maybe even prior to that because you had such high grain prices," he said. "Just been a terrible two years, two and a half years in the hog industry."

Schultz says the outcome many old-timers in the hog business are hoping for is a repeat of the swine flu outbreak of 1976. In that year, there were fears of a major pandemic, but after an initial surge in cases, the outbreak quickly faded away.

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