Economic Impact of the 'Swine Flu' Misnomer

What was believed to have started in April at a pig farm in Mexico and in the United States has now taken its toll across the globe. Countries around the world are negatively impacted by what is known as 'swine flu', a name misleading enough to affect pork markets everywhere. Rachel Ralte, reporting for ThePigSite, writes about the negative impact of referring to the novel A/H1N1 pandemic as 'swine flu'.
calendar icon 18 September 2009
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"It’s just as easy to say 'H1N1' as it is to say 'swine'."
US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack

When the world first came to know of the H1N1 virus, it was simply termed as "swine flu". Later, when it was realised that the H1N1 virus affected not just pigs, but people too on a larger scale, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) changed the name of the novel strain to 'Influenza A(H1N1)'. In a more recent development, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has again changed the name of the virus to 'Pandemic H1N1 2009'.

In April 2009, the World Health Organisation issued a public notice on an "influenza-like illness" in Mexico and the US. On 28 April, reported that officials claimed that the flu did not necessarily start in Mexico, it could have been either Texas or California. In a matter of days, panic prevailed throughout the globe – in the US, the National Pork Board issued a warning against the new strain of flu. Shortly afterwards, countries in Europe and Asia began to follow suit.

Global Markets Panic Causing Economic Damage

In May, in an evaluation of the sudden outbreak of the H1N1 flu and its economic impact, Professor Ron Plain, livestock economist with the University of Missouri Extension Commercial Agriculture Program, said, "Misnaming the H1N1 virus 'swine flu' will cause a significant amount of monetary damage, not only to the hog industry but to related industries such as hog packing and trucking."

At the time, Professor Plain was hopeful that the efforts by the WHO, the OIE and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to refer to the disease by its viral name would have a promising impact on lessening the economic damage.

Countries began to place restrictions on pork imports, negatively affecting markets to an extensive degree. For instance, Russia and China, two of the leading importers of US pork products, restricted imports from North America and later, when restrictions were lifted, there were limitations on the amount of pork imported into the countries.

According to Hindustan Times in May, when word of the H1N1 pandemic hit India, pork sellers were flooded with questions. Consumers, concerned about this new outbreak, decided to avoid pork to be safe. South Korean pork sales have recovered but this is all happening gradually, according to The Korea Herald. In China too, pork prices began to plummet – while this came as good news to consumers, farmers were at a disadvantage. Mexican pork sales went down as low as zero.

In July, Australia reported its first case of H1N1 influenza at a piggery in New South Wales. The state's Department for Primary Industries reminded consumers that pork is safe to eat. The Department's Minister for Primary Industries, Ian Macdonald, said that in all likelihood, the virus was introduced by people working with pigs. Not unlike other countries, the Australian pork industry too is hard-hit by the sudden outbreak. On 24 August, a Pork Producer Forum was held to find ways to overcome the downturn. H1N1 has contributed about 11 per cent drop in global pork trade. Perhaps it would be safe to say that one of the underlying reasons behind this is the name that the disease has so wrongly been given?

The latest news is that the H1N1 virus has hit Europe for the first time. Test results have indicated the novel strain in Northern Ireland. A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) said, "Influenza viruses, including Influenza A, are present in all pig-producing countries, including here and Great Britain and are considered endemic in the pig population. Given that this virus is currently circulating in humans, this finding is not unexpected." The UK's Food Standards Agency has advised that H1N1 does not pose a food safety threat to consumers, and hopefully, the markets will be unaffected.

Last month, US Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, again urged reporters to start referring to the flu by its correct name. "The job of the media is to get it right and not necessarily to get it convenient," said Secretary Vilsack. "To get it [the virus name] right, it’s H1N1. It is fundamentally different [from swine flu], it’s unique, we’ve never seen it before." The Secretary stressed that calling the virus 'swine flu' is upsetting to the markets and producers. "It's just as easy to say 'H1N1' as it is to say 'swine'," he said. National Pork Producers Council president, Don Butler, said: "The US pork industry is grateful to Secretary Vilsack for his strong words to the media about using the term 'H1N1'."

The disease has spread so far and wide that consumers remain unsure whether it is safe to consume pork. Major international and government organisations are still trying to promote pork to make up for economic losses that producers have suffered over the months.

What Professor Plain initially perceived as a passing obstacle in the pork market still lingers. People and news agencies are still referring to the H1N1 flu as "swine flu", and as a result, markets everywhere are still suffering huge losses.

US Agriculture Secretary Vilsack summed up the situation that is confronting the industry, not just in the US but worldwide. "I want folks who are in this business of conveying messages to understand that behind that message there is a family today... wondering how they’re going to be able to pay the bills when they continually sell pork for less than what it costs to produce, and they continue to get hammered for something that they have absolutely nothing to do with," he said.

September 2009
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