As the week comes to a close, anyone who works in the pork industry likely feels a bit run down, and it has nothing to do with contracting an actual viral infection, but it has everything to do with H1N1 influenza and its unfolding story.
For an agricultural industry that has often been on the leading edge of new developments, technology and change, the pork industry can add another one to its portfolio. It has now been thrown into the limelight as a new media guinea pig. By that I mean, it's the first industry, certainly agricultural or food industry, to face the influence and fallout from today's new media and the public's instant-messaging obsessions and short attention spans.
The "old media" outlets are not immune to some finger-pointing as television, radio, newspapers quickly labeled the new influenza virus and outbreak as "swine flu," which then spread like wildfire. The 24/7-news-media cycle in which we all live with today requires cable news and others to constantly fill the air waves, and that means talking and talking and talking about everything and anything you can think of related to a particular topic.
However, its the "new media" of bloggers, text messages and Twitter where the inaccuracies, rumor and misinformation flourished and trumped patience, clarity and facts. Anti-animal agriculture groups even took advantage of the situation and used the new media vehicles to campaign deeper and harder against modern agriculture that they so lovely like to label "factory farms."
It's worth repeating that the current influenza epidemic is the result of a virus mutation involving swine, avian and human influenza viruses. "This is the normal evolution of biology. It's what viruses do to survive," says NBC news' Nancy Synderman, a medical doctor.
Meanwhile, there is no evidence that any hogs anywhere harbor this new H1N1 sub-variant. More likely humans could eventually expose the U.S. swine herd to the virus, not the other way around. Pork or any food is not a vector for any influenza virus anywhere, anytime — influenza is a respiratory virus.
But that didn't stop some countries from closing their borders to U.S. pork. Nor did it stop Egypt from ordering the slaughter of all of the country's hogs — a very sad day for peasant farmers there who's only means of meager support was a few hogs. U.S. hog prices have taken a hit this week, and pork producers already facing 18 months or so of losses are now staring at an extension of that red ink. It could be a long climb out of this financial tunnel.
"Influenza circulates regularly among humans and animals such as pigs and birds. Pigs are important because they are close genetically and physically to humans. Birds are important because they can transport viruses across great distances," says Robert Bozell, NBC's science correspondent. "As the virus passes through these animals, it sometimes acquires different genetic characteristics that can make it more or less dangerous to human beings.
"Things will keep popping up out of nature." Bozell adds. "We live in a global ecosystem that not only includes billions of other people, but hundreds of billions of animals. And we exchange viruses and new viruses do appear."
Well, that's all good information, but much too long for a 140-character Tweet.
Welcome to a dose of the new reality — "information" distribution akin to the wild, wild west. Let's hope it quickly evolves to something more civil.