Fair officials work to protect pigs from people

Friday, August 28, 2009 | 3:03 p.m. CDT; updated 5:54 p.m. CDT, Friday, August 28, 2009

LYNDONVILLE, Vt. — No sows or piglets are in the children's barnyard at this year's Caledonia County Fair. No baby pig chases, either.

Swine are unwelcome at Vermont's oldest fair — uninvited because of misconceptions about how the swine flu virus spreads. Although the H1N1 pandemic virus is primarily a human disease, transmitted from person to person, fair officials said they want to protect themselves from bad publicity or frivolous lawsuits if someone gets sick and blames it on a pig.

That puts the Caledonia County Fair at odds with most other fairs across the country that are going to great lengths this year to protect their pigs from people, since the virus can be transmitted to the animals by humans.

The virus, which has turned up in herds in Canada, Argentina and Australia, has yet to be found in pigs in the U.S. In one rare instance, it might have jumped from pigs to two hog inspectors in Canada, but officials told the Canadian Press they could not be certain.

Fairs and petting zoos routinely encourage hand-washing to protect people from animal-borne illnesses such as E. coli. Now some fairs are urging hand-washing to protect animals — specifically pigs — from the pandemic.

When the Oregon State Fair opened Friday in Salem, visitors confronted pig barriers, recommended by the state veterinarian.

"Our pigs aren't sick, are you?" signs that will be posted at the fair said. "If you're not feeling well, don't visit the pigs."

In Maine, agriculture officials have distributed posters to fairs with swine exhibits that ask fairgoers to stay out of the exhibit areas if they are showing signs of having the flu.

"Right now, we're more worried about people giving it to pigs, rather than vice versa," state veterinarian Don Hoenig said.

Similar signs were posted when the Nebraska State Fair opened Friday in Lincoln.

North Carolina, the nation's second-largest hog-producing state behind Iowa, is going one step further, installing wooden barriers around the sow and piglet pens at its upcoming state fair in Raleigh and the North Carolina Mountain State Fair in Fletcher. They will keep people at least three feet away from the pigs, out of humans' reach and sneezing range. Signs also will direct fairgoers to stay out of livestock barns if they're sick or have been sick in the last seven days.

"The hand-washing stations have been there for years, but now the message is a little bit different: wash both before and after, not just after," said Karen Beck, a veterinarian with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "You know, keep the animals healthy as well as keep yourself healthy."

But officials at Vermont's oldest fair, which runs through Sunday, have decided to take no chance, banning all swine from the Lyndonville event.

"The perception that swine flu was transmitted between pigs and human is why we did this," said Dick Lawrence, the fair's president. "In reality, we know there's no transmission between pigs and humans."

Jim Tucker, president of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, said he doesn't know of any other fair in North America where pigs are unwelcome. He said most fairs will go on as usual, stressing personal hygiene.

"The message that fairs should be taking to the public is there is absolutely no connection between the consumption of pork and the swine flu as it was called," Tucker said.

As the fairs tussle with H1N1 infection issues of pigs and people, pork producers fret over what it will do to consumer demand. They want to push the message that pork is safe, while helping protect U.S. swine herds.

Calling the virus "swine flu" has led to confusion, according to USDA spokeswoman Chris Mather. Flu experts said people cannot get H1N1 from handling pork.

The National Pork Board has developed kits for fairs with signs urging fairgoers to wash hands and not touch pigs.

"We do worry about any misconception that people may have that they would think they have anything to fear from the pigs themselves," said Liz Wagstrom, a veterinarian with the National Pork Board.


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