CLIVE, Iowa — U.S. pork exports are down about 10% since the outbreak of the hybrid flu virus commonly known as swine flu, according to estimates from the U.S. Meat Export Federation, and recent bans in 11 U.S. export markets could cost the pork industry almost three-quarters of a billion dollars this year.
However, the majority of U.S. consumers seem to have gotten the message that the virus is not transmitted through the consumption of pork, according to a recent poll conducted by the National Pork Board here.
A recent Pork Board tracking poll indicated that eight out of 10 U.S. consumers continue to believe that pork is safe to eat, said board spokeswoman Cindy Cunningham.
“Then as we look at consumers who have purchased pork recently, more than nine out of 10 feel that pork is safe to eat, so we are definitely encouraged by that information,” she said.
Officials at the American Meat Institute, Washington, agreed that the data is encouraging.
“Based on data from the Pork Board, there is an extremely high level of confidence among consumers,” said Janet Riley, AMI's senior vice president of public affairs.
“We have been in contact with our retail customers and believe they are of the same mindset: Pork is safe.”
Thanks to requests from meat industry groups, the U.S. government has begun calling the virus the “2009 H1N1 Flu” in official statements and reports, in an effort to clarify that the disease is not a food safety issue. And, to combat any lingering negative effects that the term “swine flu” has stirred regarding pork, the Pork Board recently began planning a national advertising campaign that will emphasize the message that pork is safe to eat. Cunningham said that many details of the campaign still need to be worked out, but she anticipates that ads will appear in national print media, online and in other venues.
Some retailers said that the flu scare had made little impact on their pork sales.
“We have not experienced a reduction in pork sales, nor do we anticipate any,” said Diana Crane, spokeswoman for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets.
“We have had no indication that our shoppers are confused by the name ‘swine flu,’ but for consumers elsewhere who may be unaware that this strain of flu is apparently transmitted from its source by flies drawn to pig manure — and not directly from pigs — the effort to refer to this strain as H1N1 and not ‘swine flu’ will hopefully aid in preventing unwarranted concern about pigs and pork products.”
Crane added that PCC sources its pork locally and informs its customers of this through signage and its website.
The Pork Board is working with retailers to help address any concerns consumers might have about pork.
“We're working really closely with our retail partners to help retailers understand [the situation] and then be able to answer any questions that consumers might have about pork safety,” Cunningham said.
With spring barbecue season beginning, “that work has been very much stepped up in the last few days to assure our retail partners that pork is safe.”
Cunningham added that the simple change of the virus' name to H1N1 is critical to maintaining the industry's reputation.
“Our pork producers have spent years building up the pork market here in the U.S., and to have something inappropriately named could take down that market in a very short amount of time. That's why we're very, very pleased that the World Health Organization, CDC, U.S. Department of Agriculture, the president, everybody continues to say pork is safe to eat,” Cunningham said.
Still, 11 U.S. pork export markets have suspended trade and 13 markets are considering full or partial import suspensions. South Korea and Costa Rica have not implemented suspensions, but have increased inspections, according to AMI. The institute estimates that, based on 2008 numbers, these bans could cost the U.S. pork industry $710 million annually, or roughly $13.6 million per week in exports of pork and pork products, if trade is not restored.
However, Riley said AMI is optimistic about restoring trade.
“There are signs that our trading partners are getting the very reassuring messages from the World Organization for Animal Health and WHO, and we are hopeful that trade will normalize soon, as it should,” Riley said.
Despite the alarming nature of many early news reports, so far the H1N1 flu has proven to be relatively mild, causing a little more than 1,000 confirmed illnesses worldwide, with very few victims requiring hospitalization. Regardless, many schools around the country, including in New York, Arizona and New Mexico, have closed temporarily due to sick students.
Also, the Associated Press reported last week that pigs on a Canadian farm were infected with H1N1 — most likely by a farm worker who had traveled to Mexico — and were under quarantine. But the farm worker quickly recovered from the illness, and the 200 infected pigs were reportedly recovering last week as well. This was the first known case of pigs having this current strain of the virus. Officials were quick to confirm that influenza viruses are not uncommon on pig farms, and that these pigs did not pose a food safety risk.