Flu virus a threat to pork producers, too


The flu outbreak threatening to spread across the globe became famous as the swine flu. That's thanks to a genetic fingerprint that includes swine flu as well as human and avian flu virus. But while there are no known cases of the H1N1 flu virus being transmitted from pigs to people, the pork industry is worried about the reverse. And they're taking extra steps to protect pigs.

"There is quite a bit of concern that the public or ill workers could present a risk to the swine herds by introducing a virus that is novel to our pig industry," said University of Minnesota hog specialist Peter Davies.

Hogs are regularly vaccinated against H1N1 influenza. But farmers don't know if existing vaccines will protect their pigs from the new strain. And because the flu hasn't been detected in pigs yet, no one knows what it might do to them.

That's why If you're worried about the H1N1 or swine flu virus, one of the safest places you can find is the gestation barn at the University of Minnesota's Swine Research Center in Waseca. There are about 400 sows in here and another 400 next door.

And no swine flu virus.

Associate professor Sam Baidoo designed and built this operation from scratch eight years ago. It produces about 17,000 piglets every year. If you eat pork on a regular basis, chances are at least some of that meat was bred and born in this barn.

It's the biggest sow research facility in the country. University researchers are experimenting with new and better ways to breed and grow hogs.

"Some people say a pig farm is a dirty farm, well, look for yourself," he said. "Some people say they can come in here and eat off the floor. That's what we try to maintain in swine production."

And it isn't just the floor. Visitors aren't allowed to even see the pigs in this barn without getting undressed, taking a hot shower and putting on clothes that Baidoo supplies. Coveralls. Boots. Even socks and underwear.

You even have to take a shower on the way out.

It's all part of a long-standing effort to biologically isolate pig herds. Healthy pigs need less veterinary care and fewer drugs, so they're more attractive to consumers.

They also grow quicker and turn more input, like corn and beans, into more output, like bacon and pork chops.

"A sick animal is not going to be productive. And a pig farmer is in a business," Baidoo said. "So if he doesn't have something that's productive, it's going to affect his bottom line. So that's why it's so critical that we take all the necessary precautions, just to maintain their health."

And these days, there are even more precautions than ever because of the fear about flu. Experts say farmers are likely to consider adopting more drastic protections, such as filtering the air that comes into their barns.

As it is, human visitors basically can't set foot on a commercial pig farm in America right now -- outside of a handful of public facilities, like the University of Minnesota's.

There's also a fear that the flu might mutate among pigs and re-emerge later in a form even deadlier to people, as may have happened in 1918. Public health officials are already making discreet inquiries about how to carry out a mass slaughter and disposal of hogs if the need were to arise.

It would be a serious blow to the Minnesota economy if it came to that.

The Minnesota Pork Producers Association estimates the state's 44 hundred hog farmers sell about $2 billion worth of pigs a year.

Many of them go to well-known meat processing operations -- Hormel in Austin and Swift in Worthington.

More than 22,000 people are thought to make their living from pigs in Minnesota -- directly or indirectly -- and the state's hog industry is the nation's second largest, by dollar amount.

"We're really just going to be extra careful," said Dave Preisler, executive director of the state's pork producers association.

Hog farmers can get USDA insurance, and there would likely be some government compensation in the event of a mass slaughter, like that taking place in Egypt.

But swine experts say it's unlikely the hog industry could ever be made whole.

"The downside, obviously, is that whenever you have a disease, or the threat of a disease, there is quite an economic consequence that happens on a farm," Preisler said.