Following Monday’s statement regarding USDA’s confirmation of the 2009 Novel H1N1 influenza virus in U.S. swine, the pork industry has outlined several initiatives and current efforts underway to ensure that accurate messages and information are communicated to the media as well as to consumers.
On Friday, Oct. 16, the announcement was made that the virus was suspected in U.S. pigs. “Since then, the H1N1 Response Team — which includes National Pork Board, National Pork Producers Council, U.S. Meat Export Federation, and American Association of Swine Veterinarians, have been meeting and disseminating information,” says Dallas Hockman, NPPC vice president, industry relations. “Since the initial announcement of Friday, we have been pleased with the media coverage. For the most part they are factual and carrying the message pork is safe. “
Considering that the 2009 Novel H1N1 influenza virus is now widespread throughout the human population, pork industry officials have expected that the virus may appear in U.S. pigs. “We have suspected that this event would eventually occur,” says Hockman. “The months of planning and coordinating for this event are now in motion.”
Hockman summarized the steps that the team has taken in the past few months to prepare for the event of confirmation of the virus in U.S. pigs. Among the preparations made by the H1N1 Response Team include:
- Message testing with consumers designed to identify the most credible spokespersons and messages to reinforce pork safety with consumers. Spokespersons holding the most credibility were found to be government officials.
- Close cooperation with USDA to share information and coordinate the response to this event. The team is also coordinating efforts with state associations to inform state congressional staffs. The team acknowledged its appreciation of USDA support, including USDA Secretary Vilsack’s direct plea to the media for accuracy in H1N1 reports.
- Supplying background information to food chain partners that focus heavily on the safety of pork. Specific initiatives have included a conference call, webinar and meetings with the nation’s key grocery retailers, foodservice and health professionals.
- Training of spokespersons from the health and nutrition community.
In addition, NPPC, USMEF, and USDA have worked with international trading partners to ensure no disruptions of markets occur as a result of the confirmation. “We as of yet have not heard of additional trade restrictions that have been imposed as a result of the recent announcement,” Hockman added.
Hockman expressed optimism in the fact that foodservice customers have not expressed concern due to the confirmation. “We have not seen or heard any reaction from our retail or foodservice customers as a result of the confirmation that would give any indication that they have changed their position that they feel confident in the safety of the U.S pork supply,” Hockman said.
A key objective of the team has been to stress the importance of the media to refer to the virus as H1N1 when reporting on the influenza outbreak. “The president of the National Newspaper Association has urged community newspaper publishers and editors to use precise language in coverage of the flu pandemic,” reports Hockman. Cheryl Kaechele, publisher of the Allegan County News in Allegan, Mich., told NNA members that confusion from newspaper headlines that refer to H1N1 as "swine flu" has "unfairly cast doubt upon the pork industry."
Hockman urges all pork industry stakeholders “to work with your supply chain partners and local media to help reinforce our key messages.” In the meantime, the team will continue to monitor and engage the media, USDA, and trading partners to ensure that the pork industry gets through this latest round of media coverage with minimal disruption.