LETTER: Media hurt pork producers with flu's name

Friday, September 4, 2009 | 2:39 p.m. CDT; updated 11:46 a.m. CDT, Thursday, October 15, 2009

I am a Missouri hog farmer whose business is still being damaged by fallout from what the influential U.S. media often refer to as “swine flu.” On behalf of U.S. pork producers everywhere, I am hoping that everyone will call this virus by its proper name — H1N1.

The World Health Organization, The World Organization for Animal Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other U.S. government agencies are referring to this virus as Novel H1N1 because this is a respiratory illness, not a food-borne illness. To call this virus anything other than H1N1 contributes to public confusion about the safety of eating pork.  

That confusion has consequences. The National Pork Board conducted consumer tracking surveys in April and May and learned that at one point 25 percent of consumers thought you could contract the influenza from eating pork. The CDC pointed out then that consumers laboring under this mistaken impression might not take adequate measures to protect themselves against human-to-human transmission of this flu strain.

The second consequence is that a large number of my fellow producers are being driven out of business because of this unnecessary consumer anxiety.

We don’t believe the nation’s media, in general, have given enough thought to the impact their use of the term “swine flu” has on public health and on the livelihood of thousands of U.S. farmers.  

I recently saw a letter from Bernard Vallat, the director general of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health, which sets international animal health standards. He properly notes that this virus contains some gene sequences that have been identified as influenza virus sequences from swine, although he points out, “not in this exact combination.” Please allow me to quote from his letter:

“To date there is no information as to the specific origin of this pandemic virus which continues to spread from person to person just like a classical human influenza virus. As of today, no link between an animal and the first human cases has been established.”

“At the very beginning of the crisis, our organisation has been actively involved in alerting the WHO and the international community that it was not justified to name this new disease “swine influenza”. This incorrect nomenclature has lead many countries – at the beginning at least – to impose unjustified ban measures related to the import of pigs and pig products. It should be noted that the name of a disease always has heavy implications and has a very strong impact on the behavior of consumers worldwide. As an example, it is easy to remember that at the beginning of the “avian influenza crisis” in 2004 the consumption of poultry products decreased up to 50% in some countries and lead thousands of people to unemployment and economic distress, without any benefit for public and animal health.”

I encourage you to read the letter because it highlights the importance of naming this virus. As Mr. Vallat points out, it is a matter of accuracy, and I know that journalists are committed to accuracy.

To pork producers, this is not just an annoyance. It is impacting our livelihood.


Bill Kessler is chairman of the Missouri Pork Association.


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