- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

DES MOINES, Iowa

Like the virus itself, the name “swine flu” is spreading quickly. For the pork purveyors and hog farmers who make up the nation’s $15 billion pork industry, that’s a disaster.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the strain may not come entirely from pigs and cannot be spread by eating pork. Hog prices are already dropping as financial markets worry that people will have second thoughts about buying “the other white meat.”

“It’s killing our markets,” said Francis Gilmore, 72, who runs a 600-hog operation in Perry, outside Des Moines, and worries his small business could be ruined by the crisis. “Where they got the name, I just don’t know.”

The swine flu strain that is spreading is a never-before-seen hybrid of human, swine and bird influenza but is widely known as swine flu. Though it is suspected of killing more than 150 people in Mexico and one in the United States, public health officials have said eating products such as bacon, ham and pork chops is safe as long as the meat is cooked thoroughly.

Still, the outbreak has depressed the U.S. pork industry. China, Russia and Ukraine have banned pork imports from Mexico and parts of the United States, and the outbreak has stalled the usual spring rise in U.S. hog prices.

Hog prices nationwide had dropped to an average of about $59 per 100 pounds of carcass weight Tuesday morning, down from about $62 last Thursday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Prices typically climb past $70 in late April and May.

“[Swine flu] is an unfortunate use of words,” said Dave Warner, a spokesman with the National Pork Producers Council. “It does trouble us from that standpoint because it’s very much a public health issue right now and there’s no indication that a pig gave it to a human. To call it a ‘swine flu’ I think is a little bit misleading.”

The European Union’s health commissioner has suggested the virus be renamed “novel flu.”

“We’re discussing, is there a better way to describe this that would not lead to inappropriate actions on people’s part?” said Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In the public, we’ve been seeing a fair amount of misconception … and that’s not helpful.”

CDC scientists discovered the never-before-seen strain of influenza, a mix of pig, human and bird viruses - and while scientifically it’s part of the Type A/H1N1 family of influenza, they shortened the name to new swine flu.

What to call the novel swine flu now? Dr. Besser told reporters that the government hasn’t decided yet on a change. But a Department of Homeland Security notice suggested the boring scientific route: “The current influenza situation should be referred to as H1N1 Flu Outbreak.”

MaryBeth Winstead, 44, who was shopping at a Harris Teeter supermarket in Raleigh, N.C., said she probably wouldn’t be putting pork on her grocery list as the outbreak unfolds.

“I haven’t really done a lot of research on it yet,” Ms. Winstead said. “We normally take caution. But it’s not like I’m going to cook it anytime soon.”

At a Kroger store in Charleston, W.Va., Sondra Meadows, 69, loaded two packages of pork chops into her shopping cart. “Once it’s cooked, I don’t see how it could possibly hurt anyone,” she said. “Not buying pork is sort of ridiculous, I think.”

To put customers at ease, hog producers have ramped up efforts to show that their operations are clean. That includes urging farmers to increase handwashing, restrict visitors, block outside clothing from being worn near the animals, preventing birds from interacting with pigs and separating hogs that come from multiple sites.

But it might be too late to shut the barn door on the term “swine flu.”

“It’s just a very negative, onerous and really incorrect appellation that we’re going to have to live with,” said Dr. Tom Ray, a veterinarian and North Carolina director of livestock health.

Naming flu, in fact, has a problematic history. The infamous 1918 pandemic was first called the Spanish flu, although scientists today all agree it didn’t start there. It may have started in Kansas.

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