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Published September 24, 2009, 11:04 PM

PREPARING FOR H1N1: Pandemic flu scare hits pork industry hard

Even if nobody gets sick with H1N1 flu at Jim Gibbens’ Hexagon Farms near Cando, N.D., the virus already has taken a serious toll there. The villain isn’t the virus itself, actually, but the name by which it commonly goes: Swine flu.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

Even if nobody gets sick with H1N1 flu at Jim Gibbens’ Hexagon Farms near Cando, N.D., the virus already has taken a serious toll there.

The villain isn’t the virus itself, actually, but the name by which it commonly goes:

Swine flu.

Hexagon Farms is a 6,000-head livestock operation, and the stock is swine.

“The pork industry right now is in an extreme financial downturn,” said Gibbens, who is also the mayor of Cando and president of the North Dakota Pork Council. “Nobody is making any money right now. Nobody has for months.”

High prices for feed and other inputs were squeezing pork producers before the flu scare hit in the spring, but identifying the new strain as “swine flu” has devastated market demand and prices, here and abroad.

“It’s just fundamentally unfair,” Gibbens said. “It’s a misnomer. You can’t get sick with H1N1 by eating pork.”

Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who were among the first to use the term, agree.

“This virus was originally referred to as ‘swine flu’ because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America,” the CDC states on its Web site. “But further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs. It has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and bird (avian) genes and human genes.”

Also, “2009 H1N1 viruses are not spread by food,” the CDC states. “You cannot get infected with novel HIN1 virus from eating pork or pork products.”

The National Pork Board, an industry organization, reports that state and federal animal health officials and pork producers have created “a comprehensive on-farm plan … to keep the pork industry moving as normal even if a U.S. herd is suspected or confirmed as being infected with the novel 2009 H1N1 virus.” (www.pork.org/)

Factories and flu

Despite assurances from the industry and monitoring agencies, some continue to believe that links may exist between large swine operations and the emergence of new flu viruses. Critics of the expanding “factory farm” model in northeastern North Dakota, such as the environmental group Dakota Resource Council, also object to the farms’ sometimes objectionable odors and their impact on water quality.

Texas resident Steven Trunnell considered filing a wrongful-death suit against Smithfield Foods of Virginia, the world’s largest pork producer, after his wife became the first U.S. resident to die from H1N1.

Smithfield owns a huge pig farm near the village of La Gloria, Mexico, near where early cases of 2009 H1N1 were detected. Trunnell said he wanted an investigation to determine whether “horrifically unsanitary” conditions at the farm — which raises 1 million pigs a year — helped to spawn the new virus.

A 33-year-old special education teacher, Judy Trunnell was eight months pregnant when she was stricken. She died May 4, weeks after her baby daughter was delivered by cesarean section.

“We think that the conditions down there are a recipe for disaster,” Steven Trunnell’s lawyer, Marc Rosenthal, told Time Magazine in May. “This type of virus is more likely to evolve and mutate in this much filth and putrescence.”

Smithfield said the company had “found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico,” and health agencies in the U.S. and Mexico have not declared a link.

In Canada, the Vancouver Sun published an analysis earlier this month suggesting that “political correctness” was keeping politicians and health officials from raising questions about industrial agriculture.

Earl Brown, executive director of the Emerging Pathogens Research Centre at the University of Ottawa, told the newspaper, “There are big questions about farming practices that nobody wants to talk about.”

Evolution of a bug

Last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued a report that examined the potential impact of big pig farms on public health.

“The potential for pathogen transfer from animals to humans is increased in industrial farm animal production because so many animals are raised together in confined areas,” according to the report. “Fifty years ago, a U.S. farmer who raised pigs or chickens might be exposed to several dozen animals for less than an hour a day. Today’s confinement facility worker is often exposed to thousands of pigs or tens of thousands of chickens for eight or more hours each day.”

Wired.com, noting that the new flu could have passed “between any number of birds and pigs and people, at locations across North America, during its evolutionary journey,” said it “may well prove impossible to pinpoint exactly where it first emerged or became infectious to people. But most of its genes are almost certainly part of a North American industrial virus lineage long expected to produce pandemic variants like this one.”

U.S. pork producers argue that their operations are cleaner and safer than critics allege, they are better regulated, no direct link from their operations to the new virus has been established, and the “swine flu” scare is killing them.

In August, Missouri hog producer Chris Chinn posted an essay titled “Call it H1N1, please” on the Web site of the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Chicago which says its mission is to promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.

“The H1N1 flu virus is not in pork,” Chinn wrote. “H1N1 influenza is not a food-borne illness. The safety of pork and pork products has been affirmed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. …

“Influenza is a respiratory disease and the virus is not found in the blood or meat of healthy pigs or in pigs that have recovered from the illness,” she wrote. “Of course, sick pigs are never allowed to enter the food supply. Hog farmers have protocols established for caring for animals that develop illness. Ill pigs are not sent to market. Just like humans, pigs can get ill, but like humans, they recover.”

Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa and now U.S. secretary of agriculture, called a news conference earlier this month to scold the news media for using the term “swine flu” because of its impact on the pork industry.

“There are real people behind this,” Vilsack said on another occasion, explaining his anger to a reporter for Brownfield, an agriculture-related Internet site. “The last thing they need is to have somebody — just because it’s easier, just because it’s a little bit catchier — using the wrong term and hurting them.”

A $2 billion hit

Still, major international customers including China have persisted in restricting pork imports from the U.S. and other countries affected by the virus, and U.S. consumers continue to show their nervousness at the marketplace.

The National Pork Council estimates the problematic name has cost the industry more than $2 billion.

“It has drastically affected pork production, in North Dakota and across the country,” said Charlotte Meier of Regent, N.D., and executive secretary of the 300-member North Dakota Pork Producers Council.

“Producers were struggling the past two years anyway because of very high costs of feed, fuel and other inputs,” she said. “Then, when H1N1 struck last April and got that other name, that right away affected the markets. That all snowballed, and there isn’t a producer making money now. Some have cut back on the number of sows they’re running just to survive.”

Producers have written letters to newspapers and TV stations, pleading that they refer to the virus as H1N1, but the term “swine flu” has taken such hold — including among many health professionals — that striking it from the public vocabulary has been difficult.

On Saturday, Meier and others from the pork industry will celebrate the approach of October, “national pork month,” by grilling pork burgers at SunMart Foods locations in Fargo.

“We’ll be out there saying, ‘Hey, pork is available, and it’s tasty — and safe!” she said.

In for the long haul

Gibbens is a lifelong farmer, raising small grains and operating several hog barns. His Hexagon Farms, with more than 50 employees, includes the 6,000-head sow barn, while cousin and partner Bruce Gibbens has Dakota Country Swine, with an 18,000-head pig nursery and a 20,900 head finishing site.

“Our great-grandfather homesteaded here 127 years ago,” Jim Gibbens said, and the next generation is about to come into the business.

“We’re in this for the long haul.”

He and other pork producers met with state health officials in Bismarck two weeks ago to talk about the name problem as well as ways producers can keep their animals healthy.

“We vaccinate all our hogs,” Gibbens said. “We give them the flu shot for their regular swine flu, which can be passed back and forth between pigs and humans. I got my regular flu shot, and so did all my employees.

“We’ve also stepped up our bio-security measures, limiting access to the barns and enforcing ‘shower in and shower out,’ ” he said. (Employees and visitors must shower before entering the barns and upon leaving.) “We already were at a high level of bio-security, even before this swine ...”

He caught himself before finishing the phrase.

“It’s just not right to call it that,” he said.

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com.

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