After several quarters of financial thrashing, the U.S. pork industry came face-to-face with an inappropriately named influenza virus.
Adding insult to injury, the outbreak of H1N1 Influenza A virus has left the U.S. pork industry reeling from yet another exaggerated media frenzy.
The first appearance of this recombinant quagmire of human, avian and porcine viral components has the ever-present, unchecked e-mailers, bloggers and twitterers spewing falsehoods, made worse by daily TV news crews who stubbornly clung to the “swine flu” monicker.
In the second week of the media storm came unwelcomed news from Canada indicating that a hog farm employee had travelled to Mexico and back, dragging with him the H1N1 influenza strain that infected pigs on the farm. Hence, came another flurry of headlines and renewed concerns about the virus and whether it was safe to be around pigs, pork or the people who had contracted the novel flu strain.
A Silver Lining?
The good news about the bad news is that the staffs at the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the National Pork Board reacted quickly and effectively the minute news of swine-tagged flu symptoms hit the airwaves, newspaper and website headlines around the globe.
In Suite 875 of an office building situated near Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the NPPC staff stepped into damage control mode, working closely with leaders who oversee trade and agriculture. It's days like these that a constant presence on Capitol Hill provides a payback.
Simultaneously, the staffs at the Des Moines-based offices of the National Pork Board and NPPC were gathering facts, studying the science, contacting health officials and legislators with proof that the “swine” reference was inappropriate and inaccurate. NPPC focused on the political and export fallout, while Pork Board staff centered their attention on science and reason.
Imagine what would have happened if there was no credible voice in the hub of legislative and regulatory activity. Imagine, too, if the veterinarians and scientists at the Pork Board and NPPC were unavailable to dispel the half truths and inaccurate reports about the novel influenza strain. What if there were no programs to tutor pork producers in the art of dealing with the media or reassuring groups of naturally concerned consumers about the safety of today's pork?
Coincidentally, on page 10 of this issue, you will find a special crisis management article, “Surviving the Spotlight.” We offer it now for reflection and as a refresher course after all that has happened in the pork industry the past few weeks.
It Could Be Worse
While we are being grateful, we would do well to glance over our shoulders and try to imagine another, even more serious scenario — one in which we were facing the discovery of a foreign animal disease, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), within our borders rather than dealing with a novel influenza virus.
In that context, perhaps the past few weeks provided a dress rehearsal for something much, much bigger. Instead of fervently reassuring our foreign pork buyers that pork is safe, when handled and prepared properly, and the H1N1 virus cannot be spread from pigs to people, we would have faced an immediate lock-down of our borders. An FMD outbreak would make H1N1 look like a cake walk.
If you are an advocate for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), the H1N1 situation should reinforce its worth. The discovery of the H1N1 virus in the Alberta swine herd certainly reinforced the value of Canada's farm identification/traceback program, as they quickly and decisively quarantined the pigs, the people and the site of the H1N1 discovery.
The same could probably be accomplished here if a troubling disease were found on a U.S. hog site. But there are other factions of the American livestock industry that continue to oppose a program with traceback capabilities that could help control such a catastrophe.
If you have registered your premises, good for you. If your friends and neighbors have not, ask them to consider what would have happened to the U.S. livestock industry had FMD been discovered in place of the H1N1 virus.
My hat's off to the staffs at the NPPC and the National Pork Board for their swift, science-based focus in dealing with the H1N1 virus. If you haven't thanked them recently — now would be a good time. And, if you haven't endorsed the NAIS program and registered your sites under the premises identification program, please give it some more thought (www.usda.gov/nais). Your livelihood could certainly depend on it.