Pig Politics

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First disclosure: I am not a vegetarian, although I eat less meat than most people.


Second disclosure: I’m not here to defend or decry the food industry. As a clinical medical editor for more than 20 years, I’d rather stick to the science at hand.

With these caveats out of the way, let’s talk swine flu—or what was called swine flu less than a week ago, before the headline-making virus was renamed H1N1.

The first nomenclature change occurred when scientists and the World Health Organization determined the virus’ pedigree was a “quadruple reassortant”: two parts swine, one part avian and one part human. And in the geopolitical realm, the name “swine flu” was just plain bad for business. Americans were afraid to eat pork, and other countries had no desire to bring home our bacon, among other pig products.

The National Pork Board, a Des Moines, IA-based industry group, wasn’t wrong in lobbying for a name change. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack clearly stated, “There is no evidence or reports that U.S. swine have been infected with this virus. USDA is reminding its trading partners that U.S. pork and pork products are safe, and there is no basis for restricting imports of commercially produced U.S. pork and pork products.”

“What we call this flu is important,” added Pork Board CEO Chris Novak. “Consumers and our international customers need to be assured that pork is safe and will continue to be safe to consume. Calling this swine flu, when to date there has been no connection between animals and humans, has the potential to cause confusion. There simply is no reason for anyone to be concerned about the safety of eating pork.”

What remains to be seen is whether pig farms in Mexico, including factory farms run by U.S. companies, will be linked to the first viral infections there. Townspeople are blaming farm runoff, according to New York Times reporter Robert Mackey.

The American Meat Institute, a Washington, DC trade association, is already gearing up to protect its interests. Says President and CEO J. Patrick Boyle: “Although this particular virus could affect swine, it has not been reported in any pigs in Mexico or the United States. Media reports showing images of pigs are creating a false impression that is generating needless alarm and concern regarding the safety of pork. We are urging U.S. officials to work aggressively with a handful of nations that have ceased imports of U.S. pork to convey the science to secure a full restoration of trade. These trade suspension actions are based on unfounded fear, not on scientific facts.”

Indeed, the CDC has made it clear that eating pork will not transmit H1N1, by any name. I trust this finding, as this virus is airborne—not foodborne.

But in the weeks to come, we’ll need to find out whether factory farms, long the bane of green and organic consumers, will be confronted with health and safety violations that may have resulted in animal-to-human virus transmission.

Photo courtesy of the National Pork Board

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