This week has presented the U.S. pork industry with tremendous challenges as it works with U.S. and global health organizations to calm unfounded fears connecting pork consumption to the current influenza outbreak. While the H1N1 flu was unfortunately dubbed “swine flu” at the outset of this news cycle, these basic facts are clear:

  • Influenza cannot be transmitted by eating pork.
  • There is no evidence that the H1N1 strain is present in U.S. pigs or any other pigs.
  • If an animal with active swine flu infection were to arrive at a processing facility, it would not pass the Food Safety Inspection Service ante-mortem inspection and would be condemned as unfit for human consumption.

Despite repeated assurances from public health agencies and food safety experts, the influenza scare has caused some consumers to shy away from pork. Even more unfortunate has been the overreaction by some foreign governments that have imposed bans on pork and pork products from the United States, or from the states with confirmed influenza cases.

“USMEF is working in each of our markets to prevent expansion of these obstacles to trade, and to limit the scope and length of any trade suspensions,” says Philip Seng, president and CEO of the U.S. Meat Export Federation.

These efforts include frequent contact with trade and food safety officials in overseas markets in order to provide sound, scientific facts that they are able to use to reassure the public about the safety of U.S. pork. In some cases, the results have been highly successful as several major trading partners have resisted pressure to impose bans or restrictions on pork imports. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are just a few examples of markets in which U.S. pork continues to be readily available to consumers, and where health officials have emphasized pork's safety.

“The majority of our trading partners have stepped up to the plate and followed sound science on this issue,” says Seng. “The bans imposed by Russia, China and some other markets are quite frustrating, however, because they have no scientific basis and are simply adding to the confusion and unfounded fears about pork.”

In markets that remain open, educating consumers and maintaining confidence in the safety of pork is a major challenge. 

Following are insights from USMEF’s global staff:

JAPAN - In the largest foreign market for U.S. pork, the government has taken very strong and positive actions to inform consumers about the safety of pork, and have even reminded retailers that pork imported from the United States was not to receive any disparaging treatment in comparison to domestic pork. The results have been very positive, as U.S. pork has not been pulled from any stores or restaurants, and initial reports suggest only slight declines in demand. Influenza does seem to be dampening travel and tourism activity somewhat during the Golden Week holiday in Japan, and officials are taking additional safety measures regarding people entering the country. Specifically, travelers entering the country at airports are subject to thermographic screenings and other precautions that slow arrivals, lengthen travel times and may deter travel to some degree. Any slowdown directly related to pork imports or food safety, however, appears to be minimal.  

SOUTH KOREA - A similar situation exists in Korea, where health officials cited the lack of any scientific justification for a pork import ban, despite pressure from consumer groups and local pork producers. An increase in screenings for pork imports could slow trade, however, and cause some importers to pull back on shipments of chilled pork. Reports on demand in Korea suggest a pullback in pork purchases regardless of origin, but no drastic rejection of pork by consumers.

TAIWAN - Taiwan has issued warnings to its citizens about travel to the United States or Mexico, but have also emphasized that pork consumption poses no risk related to influenza. Where necessary, USMEF is working with importers and retailers to provide safety information and reassure consumers about the safety of pork. While a few companies may be delaying or reducing imports of U.S. pork, this does not appear to be a significant trend.

MEXICO - Mexico is the No. 2 market for U.S. pork this year and is consistently the largest combined export market for U.S. pork and beef. Despite some unfounded rumors of trade restrictions or border closings, Mexico remains fully open to all U.S. products, including red meat exports. The biggest challenges in Mexico, however, are the drastic shutdown in economic activity and a noticeable decline in pork demand. Consumption of many food products is obviously affected by the closure of Mexico City restaurants and the cancellation of public events and other activities. Pork demand has been particularly hard-hit, however, as misinformation about the source and spread of the influenza virus has been difficult to combat.

“Right now it is hard to separate the impact on pork from the widespread slowdown in general buying activity,” says Chad Russell, USMEF regional director for Mexico and the Dominican Republic. “But we have definitely seen some shift away from pork as the protein of choice, as many consumers appear to be choosing poultry, beef and other food items instead.”

Russell said USMEF has been very successful in communicating with the government of Mexico and preventing any trade restrictions from being imposed. USMEF is also gathering market intelligence and working on plans to rebuild pork demand in this critical export market. The execution of this effort, however, must be carefully planned. With the government ordering a shutdown of all non-essential business activity until May 6, any rebound in economic activity is not on the immediate horizon. In the meantime, employment in the foodservice sector and other areas of the economy is suffering greatly. The impact is especially severe, given that Mexico’s economy was already slumping. The government of Mexico had already reported a 10.8 percent contraction in February’s economic activity when compared to February 2008. With the additional impact from influenza, that trend is certain to worsen.

“The entire economy in Mexico is suffering mightily right now, and we know its recovery will take some time” he notes. “But we also know this is an outstanding market for U.S. pork and beef, and we are taking steps to ensure that we are well-positioned to have continued success here in the future.”

WESTERN HEMISPHERE - Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, most markets remain open to U.S. pork. Canada, which is consistently a top five market for U.S. pork, has imposed no influenza-related trade restrictions on pork imports or live swine from the United States. While Honduras and St. Lucia have imposed suspensions on U.S. pork and swine imports, most other countries have followed scientific recommendations. Bolivia, Costa Rica and Guatemala have in fact reversed earlier announcements of import bans, and now remain open to U.S. pork. Though initial reports from Central and South America suggest some decline in pork consumption,
USMEF is countering this trend by providing up-to-date information to government and industry officials in order to bolster consumer confidence in pork. In the Caribbean, USMEF is moving aggressively to provide retailers with safety information that allows them to communicate effectively with consumers and avoid any slippage in pork demand.

RUSSIA and CHINA - In terms of market closures, the most problematic suspensions have been those imposed by Russia and China. Russia has taken the unusual measures of banning pork from southern-tier states regardless of whether they have a confirmed influenza case, and banning export of all uncooked meat product s from certain states with confirmed cases. These moves have greatly disrupted all meat trade with Russia, creating tremendous confusion among exporters about product eligibility.

China’s ban on pork exports is limited to states with confirmed influenza cases, but China has also banned transshipments through any of these states. This creates a particular problem with regard to California, as exporters work to re-route shipments through ports in the Pacific Northwest or direct products to other Asian markets.

“The actions taken by China have been very disruptive,” says Joel Haggard, USMEF senior vice president for the Asia-Pacific region. “We are working to address the transshipment issue as well as the lack of justification for the entire suspension. But with China’s government heading into a holiday period, I’m afraid we are at least several days away from any kind of resolution.”

According to Seng, USMEF will continue to work aggressively to restore market access and maintain the exceptional global demand for U.S. pork, which has been many years in the making.

“Having experienced professionals on the ground in key markets has been very beneficial during this difficult time,” he says. “This has allowed USMEF to keep critical lines of communication open and mitigate the negative impact as much as possible. Whether we are communicating with consumers, importers, or trade officials, these well-established relationships have proven to be very valuable.

“The U.S. pork industry has been one of the great trade success stories of our entire national economy – exporting about 25 percent of its total production last year,” Seng adds. “It was the 17th consecutive year of record pork exports, and one of every three pounds of pork traded on the world market last year was produced in the United States. While we face a very serious challenge right now in terms of both market access and consumer demand, pork producers across the nation can rest assured that USMEF will do everything we can to maintain their industry’s momentum in the global marketplace.”  

Source: The U.S. Meat Export Federation