Flu outbreak exposes strengths, weaknesses among producers, policymakers
By Dan Murphy, industry commentator (www.themeatofthematter.com)
With the spread of a virulent new virus across North America – and the fist U.S. fatality Tuesday – there is growing concern among meat industry leaders about how this affects public perceptions of their business, and ultimately, their operations.
From a medical and public health perspective, the response to date has been most gratifying. Unlike other recent public health emergencies that occurred during the Bush administration, the federal government’s communications and reactions have been sharp, timely and focused on effective investigation and mitigation strategies.
That’s a welcome change.
Internationally, the UN’s World Health Organization has also responded decisively, raising the pandemic alert level to Phase 4 (“confirmed person-to-person spread of a new influenza virus able to cause community-level” outbreaks”). Domestically, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued warnings against non-essential travel to Mexico (now there’s some real genius advice – or as comedian Hal Sparks suggests, “Wash your hands, don’t rub your eyes and avoid eating a pulled pork sandwich in Cancun while sitting next to somebody blowing their nose into a bandana.”) and began stockpiling personal protective equipment, respiratory protection devices and antiviral drugs such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir.
The good news is that this influenza A-H1N1 virus appears to be susceptible to those drugs, and should the spread of the disease widen, treatment would likely help most victims recover without incident.
Now for the bad news.
Despite the seriousness of this situation, very few industry groups have gotten out front of the news with their external communications. Here’s one suggestion:
STOP CALLING IT SWINE FLU.
Even the UN boarded that bus this week, noting that the term “swine flu” implies that you can catch the disease from consuming pork products. Reality is that this virus is a unique mutation that combines biological material from human, porcine and avian influenza viruses.
Granted, it’s difficult to wean the media off using of precise medical terms (like “octomom”), but certainly industry shouldn’t be referring to this virus as the equivalent of mad cow disease. “The flu outbreak,” or the use of the technical name for this virus – H1N1 – would be a far better choice.
And speaking of that hysteria, it is time for industry to start talking about the critical importance of biosecurity. (In an eerie parallel to the dairy cow born in Canada but diagnosed with BSE in Mabton, Wash., in 2003, the young boy who became the first U.S. fatality in Houston was actually a Mexican national who had only recently returned to Texas). The spread of virtually every deadly zoonotic disease, such as foot-and-mouth, is exacerbated when the prevailing production model is small farms, outdoor operations and lots of buying and selling of individual animals among local farmers and producers.
In other words, every practice demonized by the anti-industry activists – confinement production, centralized systems, the use of specialty growers – turns out to be precisely the way that such outbreaks could and should be controlled. This is the time to do some serious consumer and media education.
If ordinary reporters and producers can eventually get their arms arou
nd the idea that BSE prions are confined to neurological tissue (brain and spinal cord), which North American don’t consume, they can also begin to internalize the concept of biosecurity as a series of measures that are positive with respect to public health, if not perceived animal welfare.
Remember foot-and-mouth in the U.K.? The widespread practice of swapping and trading animals among England’s smaller farms was exactly how the outbreak outran efforts to contain it. And with BSE, the biggest problem investigators had with the initial reference animal was trying to figure out which herds and what farmers had bought and sold the cow prior to her positive diagnosis.
This outbreak will get worse before it gets better. Thankfully, public health authorities are rapidly gearing up with measures that, even if they’re not needed, will help make us all safer should an actual pandemic occur.
Meanwhile, industry should be working equally hard to communicate the idea that this virus likely originated due to the “natural” production conditions typical of less developed agricultural models, such as Mexico, and that the value of modern confinement production systems should now be understood less in terms of greedy producers making obscene profits and more in terms of protecting our non-farm population from the occasional, though potentially deadly, eruption of a new zoonotic disease organism.
The way pork producers operate in North America is designed to keep pigs safe, and humans even safer.
Let’s get busy and share that thought.