H1N1 influenza fears disrupt world trade in pigs and pork

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — World trade in pork and live pigs was thrown into turmoil by the rapid spread of H1N1 influenza and the unfortunate initial identification of the virus as a "swine flu." Several importing nations, out of caution and in response to domestic consumers and farm groups, imposed partial or complete bans on pigs and pork originating from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and even Spain and the United Kingdom, nations where human cases of H1N1 influenza were identified.

As research generated more knowledge about the virus and leading international human and animal health agencies affirmed it could not be spread by consumption of pork or trade in pigs or pork products, some countries imposing import restrictions began to reconsider their actions, but others, most importantly China and Russia, maintained restrictions.

Even if the ultimate genetic origin of the H1N1 virus were solely swine, and that proved not to be the case, its transmission was from human to human, and there was no evidence it was a foodborne disease. Concerned about the unwarranted imposition of import bans or restrictions, the Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.), the World Organization for Animal Health (O.I.E.), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.) on May 2 issued an unprecedented joint statement affirming "we stress that pork and pork products, handled in accordance with good hygienic practices recommended by the WHO, F.A.O., Codex Alimentarius Commission and the O.I.E., will not be a source of infection."

Initial statements from Canadian and U.S. agriculture and health agencies asserted in addition to pork products being safe to consume that no swine herds in either country was infected with the virus. But on May 2, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tentatively confirmed swine from a 2,200-animal herd in Alberta tested positive for the H1N1 strain. The 200 animals that fell ill were thought to have been infected by a Canadian carpenter who recently was in Mexico and exhibited flu-like symptoms when he worked on the Alberta farm. The farm family also contracted the flu. The animals, the worker and farm family members all recovered. The farm was under quarantine.

Canadian and U.S. officials and the O.I.E. said the incident in Alberta did not alter the fact pork products remained safe to consume and were not associated with the spread of H1N1. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, "The international scientific community agrees that pork is safe. We are urging all countries to remove any restrictions on the movement of pork that are not based on sound science."

A spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative told Food Business News that as of May 5, Russia has banned all non-heat-treated meat, poultry and pork products from certain U.S. states "but has indicated that it will drop its ban on June 1." The spokeswoman said the office would not speculate why June 1 was specified as the date for lifting restrictions.

China has banned live swine, pork and pork products from some 30 U.S. states, essentially from any state where the human virus was reported. Additionally, products originating from states where the human virus was not known to exist must not traverse states where the virus is present while en route to China, which created a logistical nightmare.

Croatia, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, South Korea, St. Lucia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine also imposed various bans or restrictions on U.S. live swine and pork products, the U.S.T.R. said.

It was noted the Philippines lifted its restrictions on U.S. and Canadian pork products but maintained a ban on live swine from Canada.

Governments of exporting countries sent a flurry of complaints to nations imposing bans or restrictions, and there were indications should restrictions remain in place, action might be taken at the W.T.O., although it was pointed out Russia was not a member of the W.T.O.

Philip Seng, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, in a May 5 interview with Agri-Pulse, suggested all restrictions likely will be lifted in the next few weeks. Mr. Seng said the disruption of trade might reduce U.S. pork exports about 10% this year and end the string of year-on-year increases in U.S. pork exports at 17. Even after governments lift bans on pork imports, the industry will have to address restoring consumer confidence in pork products, Mr. Seng said.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, May 12, 2009, starting on Page 24. Click here to search that archive.

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