Most anyone involved in the pork industry feels a bit run down these days. While it has nothing to do with an actual viral infection, it has everything to do with Type A H1N1 influenza misperceptions.
Of course, you’re all too familiar with the fallout from the outbreak being mislabeled “swine flu” and the nearly $25-per-hog it took from your paycheck. How long and how deep the impact on the industry will run remains unclear, but it will be in the high millions of dollars.
The speed with which misinformation spread and the willingness to tie it to swine, pork production and even pork products only added to the shock.
It is little comfort, but this pandemic and your industry served as something of a guinea pig. By that I mean it’s the first U.S. industry, certainly agricultural or food based, to face the influence of and fallout from today’s new media revolution and the public’s instant-messaging obsessions and short attention spans.
As one pork industry media director put it, “anyone with a computer or cell phone can report whatever they want today.”
That’s exactly what groups opposing modern pork production did. They used such avenues as blogs, text messages and Twitter to produce a tsunami of negative-pork-industry messages and to campaign deeper and harder against what they lovely label “factory farms.” Inaccuracies, rumor and misinformation flourished, trumping patience, clarity and facts.
The “old media” outlets are not without blame — television, radio and newspapers were equally quick to run photos of hogs with their pandemic flu reports and have been slow or non-responsive in referring to Type A H1N1 influenza. What’s more, the 24/7-broadcast cycle requires cable news and others to constantly fill the air waves, and that means talking about everything and anything you can think of related to a particular topic.
Past seeds planted by activists that pork producers are “reckless with the environment, treat animals like commodities and are greedy” made it easier for people to believe that the influenza virus probably did originate there too. People are “inclined to rule against the (pork) industry because of some of these other issues that they have been reading about,” says Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food.
Never mind that the only link between humans, hogs and this influenza virus occurred in Canada where an infected person passed the virus on to pigs. The Smithfield Foods’ farm near the “H1N1 epicenter” of Veracruz, Mexico, was tested and retested, only to come up squeaky clean. Activists and the natives there were quick to blame the large production unit for the infection. Unfortunately, that skepticism will remain with many people all over the world.
The Humanitarian University Consortium, a non-profit think-tank of university experts, emphasizes that despite the finger-pointing at modern pork production, those are not the systems that present concern. They have the biosecurity in place to protect pigs and humans. The small, backyard farms are less likely to have proper biosecurity. “Farms in the global regions with severe poverty (which includes more than 3 billion of the world’s population) and no public-health infrastructure are the riskiest of all,” the consortium notes. But that message doesn’t get out or it falls on deaf ears.
Add in the run of recent food scares, which has made the public ultra skeptical of their food supply, and H1N1 conconted a very bad recipe. The fact that influenza is a respiratory illness and that health officials, the government and the pork industry vehemently and repeatedly drove that point home probably tempered an even worse fall out for pork demand.
Now the media and others are pointing at world health and government officials charging that they overacted. Isn’t hindsight great? Sure the virus has been mild, causing fewer than 100 deaths globally — compared with 36,000 that the “seasonal flu” imposes each year in the United States alone. The issue is not over; as is the nature of influenza viruses, this one could die away, gain momentum or mutate further.
At the World Health Organization’s annual meeting in mid-May, the H1N1 virus dominated the agenda. Among the tasks, to develop guidelines for pandemic alerts that include the severity of a virus as well as the spread. Gee, what a good idea.
Among the positives was the National Pork Board’s quick response, which included a $1 million media campaign with full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers and on the Web. Retailers even joined in and featured pork products. Of course you know that the government agencies and global markets felt the heat from the National Pork Producers Council to get the H1N1 message realigned and export doors reopened based on science and reason.
In the end, H1N1 presented a painful lesson, but it taught us that there’s no time to wait or waste. Consumer trust is fragile and needs to be nurtured. Science, reason and common sense may be your lifeblood, but they mean little to a nervous public. This was sort of a practice run. I’m not saying the industry was caught off guard; there has been good focus on crisis management in recent years. But that job is never done and that includes on your farm. Consider H1N1 a dose of the new reality.