The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a program designed to monitor and provide surveillance in swine herds carrying the novel H1N1 flu virus.

The catch was the program fails to provide pork producers with any assurances that if their herds become identified as infected, that packers will buy their hogs and retailers will sell the pork products.

“The reality is that USDA is willing to pay for testing samples if producers want to voluntarily participate, and as of today, almost nobody has elected to participate,” observes James Collins, DVM, head of the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL).

Actually, there has been a smattering of swine samples tested and recorded for the novel H1N1 flu virus, as seen in a small diagnostic testing summary supplied by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. A Sept. 29 report indicates since initiation of testing on May 29, 2009, 143 samples have been submitted to 17 National Animal Health Laboratory Network laboratories and tested. All of the samples that were submitted have been negative for the novel H1N1 flu virus.

It is speculated that those samples originated from backyard hog operations and smaller hog units that possibly weren’t even aware that samples had been submitted for testing.

But average pork producers aren’t submitting any samples. Until they can be assured the packer will take their pigs and the retailer will market their pork, “they are not going to participate,” Collins reiterates.

He adds: “That is where the stumbling block is right now. Minnesota and Iowa state veterinarian offices have shown leadership in trying to get this matter resolved, and they are getting close, but they are not there yet.”

There is a lot of testing for swine influenza being done, including for the novel H1N1 virus in pigs, “but we currently don’t have the authorization or the permission from producers to share that information with anybody because of the possible consequences,” says the leader of the Minnesota diagnostic laboratory.

When a Canadian producer notified animal health officials earlier this year that his herd had contracted the novel H1N1 virus, authorities placed it under quarantine. Local packers refused to buy the hogs even though the animals recovered from the novel flu virus; the producer was forced to depopulate his herd.

“As an association, we would like to see a robust surveillance program, because we think that will assist with the future development of vaccines and identification of any strains that are occurring in the field,” notes Tom Burkgren, DVM, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV). “But we can certainly understand and commiserate with producers who don’t want to submit the samples.”

Lisa Becton, DVM, director, Swine Health Information & Research, National Pork Board, says the pork industry is working to develop more of a comprehensive surveillance program to allow detection of multiple diseases and emerging diseases and also incorporate the influenzas into that framework.

A total of $100 million was allocated to USDA in supplemental funding earlier this year to deal with the novel H1N1 flu threat. A total of $70 million was designated for swine surveillance, $20 million for industry marketing reports and $10 million for vaccine development, diagnostics, research, etc. a total of $25 million has been released to USDA, but the additional $75 million has not yet been released to the agency, according to Jen Greiner, DVM, director of Science and Technology for the National Pork Producers Council.

The novel H1N1 flu virus has not yet been found in the U.S. pig herd, she points out.

AASV President Rodney “Butch” Baker says it is very likely that the current circulating swine H1N1 viruses will provide complete or nearly complete cross-protection against the novel H1N1 virus. Thus, very few herds would be susceptible.

Even so, he declares: “There is a real need for active surveillance to protect the pigs and people, but it requires a national surveillance system that also protects producers from national and global publicity and thusly protects the brands of the packers and further processors.”