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Don't call it 'swine flu,' farmers implore

Hog farmers, already hurting from the recession, say paranoia about the H1N1 virus has devastated their business.

December 05, 2009|By P.J. Huffstutter
  • Dale Brinker checks on his hogs in Auxvasse, Mo. The H1N1 virus has been a public relations nightmare for the nation's 67,000 pork producers.
Dale Brinker checks on his hogs in Auxvasse, Mo. The H1N1 virus has been a… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)

Reporting from Nevada, Iowa — Hog farmer David Moody has stopped letting strangers into his barn because he's afraid they'll infect his pigs with swine flu.

Not that he would ever call the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus by its colloquial name.

Like many pork producers across the heartland, he has spent months railing against the term "swine flu," which he says has caused so much fear that the bottom has fallen out of the pork market.

It doesn't seem to matter that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that the disease is spread by humans, and is impossible to get from eating pork or standing next to a pig.

"Every time I turn on the TV, they're talking about it: swine flu," said Moody, 46, from his farm about 10 miles east of Ames, Iowa. "Come on, how hard is it to say H1N1?"

The spread of the swine flu -- er, H1N1 -- has left in its wake a public relations nightmare for the nation's 67,000 pork producers.

Since April, when the virus was first reported, the industry has lost about $1.5 billion, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

The losses have come on top of two rough years for the pork industry, hit hard by rising feed costs and slackening demand due to the recession.

Moody, who grew up on a hog farm, can't remember a time when things were this tough. His profits are down, his feed costs are high and the heating bill for his hog barns is growing.

He glanced out the front window, past the pig wind chimes and the grinning Porky statue standing guard at the front door, to the low-slung metal barns lined up alongside his front yard. The sound of 600 grunting sows mixed with the patter of falling rain.

"It's been two years of red ink," said Moody, who declined to talk about the specifics of his family's finances. "There was a chance things could have turned around earlier this year, until H1N1 hit. After that, it went from bad to worse."

What riles Moody is that the virus, which has killed about 4,000 people this year in the United States, is only tangentially related to his beloved pigs.

The H1N1 virus is related to one common in North American pigs but also contains genetic pieces from birds and humans. The actual swine virus in pigs is harmless to humans. What makes it dangerous is the mutated combination of the three main genetic pieces.

The scientific evidence, however, has meant little to a world fearful of this new disease.

In Egypt, the government killed 300,000 pigs in the mistaken belief that the animals spread the disease. In Afghanistan, the country's one known pig was ordered quarantined because of similar fears.

Twenty-six countries temporarily banned the export of pork from North America, even though cooked pork is perfectly safe. Other big consumers, such as Mexico, stopped taking orders altogether as fearful consumers just stopped eating pork.

The effect on pig farmers was swift.

"The H1N1 outbreak was first reported on a Friday. It was April 24, and producers were losing an average of $11 a head at that point," said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "By Monday, and over the next several weeks, those losses went to $20 a head or more."

Farmers quickly mobilized to fight the misperceptions that pigs could spread the disease.

David Struthers, 42, griped to TV and radio stations near his home in Collins, Iowa, whenever they used the term. His wife, a hospital nurse, corrected doctors at work if they mentioned swine flu.

"It makes me so angry, this swine flu stuff," said Struthers, who has raised hogs since he graduated from high school. "I was cursing the anchor lady on the radio a couple nights ago."

Others have joined the fray. The rural outcry in Kansas convinced the state's farm bureau to launch a radio and online campaign to quash the use of the term.

The Kansas Farm Bureau is using its Twitter account to criticize reporters who dare use the phrase. "It's H1N1, NOT SWINE FLU!" the bureau raged in one tweet about a Kansas City Star story. "Credible journalists should know better!"

The agency has also put hog farmers on the air for 60-second spots "and just let them tell their story and communicate that pork is safe," said bureau spokesman Mike Matson.

So many pork farmers contacted U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, a Democrat from Missouri's 4th District, that he reached out with a request to the National Newspaper Assn., the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Radio-Television News Directors Assn.

Call it "human influenza," he suggested. Leave pigs out of it.

Only the National Newspaper Assn. got back to him. Last month, the association took the unusual step of issuing a recommendation to its 2,000 community newspaper members, many of which publish in rural and suburban areas. Its president, Cheryl Kaechele, urged community newspapers to use precise language in coverage of H1N1.

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