By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau
What’s in a name? Everything if you’re a pork producer and the name of the newest health scare makes people think twice about eating bacon.
The fast rise in the number of people diagnosed with the so-called “swine flu” over the last week has sent pork futures tumbling and re-awakened bad memories of the 2009 flu pandemic bearing the same name.
Health officials have gone to great lengths to call the new bug by a more official name, the variant influenza A (H3N2v), and to tell people it’s safe to eat pork.
But the people who make their living raising and selling hogs fear its the other label that will stick, pointing to headlines that read: “Swine flu cases surge.”
“It’s amazing the impact of a name,” said Mike Platt, executive director of the Indiana Pork Producers Association. “It’s all about labeling and perception.”
Indiana is the epicenter of what appears to be a new flu strain that’s been dubbed the “swine flu” for a reason. It has the largest number of confirmed human cases in the U.S as of Thursday, at 120; and state health officials said all of those people infected with the bug got it from handling sick pigs.
The very first human case of a variant influenza A (H3N2v) was detected in Indiana in July 2011 — found in a child who routinely handled pigs.
The Centers for Disease Control calls the variant influenza A (H3N2v) a “swine virus,” meaning its yet to be detected as being passed from human to human — though it could be soon. The CDC also said this new flu strand carries genetic similarities to the first “swine flu” — the H1N1 virus that sickened hundreds of thousands globally in 2009 and plunged the U.S. pork industry into a financial crisis when people stopped eating pork.
There is some bitter irony for pork producers this summer: The early detection of this new flu strand, and the loud alarm bells rung by health officials in response, stems in large part from the ramped efforts to test pigs for new flu virus strains after the H1N1 pandemic.
Now, as back then, health officials are saying there’s absolutely no reason to stop eating pork or visiting pigs. But now, as back then, the message may not be getting through. The human foot traffic along Champions Row in the swine barn at the Indiana State Fair has dropped dramatically since Monday when fair officials sent home all of the 4-H exhibitors’ pigs after fever — a sign of the virus — was detected in a handful of hogs.
As alarming for people like Platt are the comments from visitors to the Indiana State Fair Pork Tent, where volunteers are serving up the usually popular pork burgers. “They come in and ask, ‘Are you sure this is safe to eat?’ ” Platt said.
Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman donned her “Indiana Pork” embroidered shirt to visit the fair Thursday. Skillman has a life-size sculpture of a pig outside her Statehouse office. She’s been worried that this summer’s historic drought, with its huge impact on livestock feed prices, could mean financial calamity for the state’s pork industry. Unlike most crop farmers that have crop insurance that covers their losses, most hog farmers are without.
Now she sees visions of the summer of 2009, when Indiana’s pork industry, which employs about 13,000 people, took a massive financial hit when people stopped eating pork. State agricultural officials estimated pork producers suffered a $50 million loss.
“This can devastate an industry,” Skillman said.
Amy Reel, the spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, and Denise Derrer, the spokeswoman for the Indiana Board of Animal Health have repeatedly asked members of the media to stop using the label “swine flu” and start using either “variant influenza A” or “H3N2.”
Their pleas aren’t working yet. “We’re trying to do the best we can to keep people informed without instilling unnecessary fear in the public or being unfair to the pork industry,” Derrer said before adding this: “It is safe to eat your bacon, and your ham and the pork burgers at the State Fair.”
Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.