It ain't the pigs.
The hog industry leaped into damage control Monday as headlines around the world reflected fears of a pandemic popularly known as "swine flu" despite few connections to hogs or eating pork.
Early reports on the flu that has killed more than 140 people in Mexico and sickened others in the United States and Spain caused investors to punish the share price of hog companies such as Tyson and Smithfield Foods. Futures prices for hogs fell, too, as investors concluded the flu would curtail demand for pork.
China, Russia, Indonesia and the Philippines have blocked pork imports from Mexico and some U.S. states, but not Minnesota.
Yet none of the evidence so far suggests pork eaters or hog farmers should be concerned because the virus, which contains parts of swine, human and avian flu viruses, does not appear to be infecting pigs, nor coming from them.
"It is not justified to name this disease swine influenza," read a statement from the World Animal Health board, based in Paris.
The virus contains parts of the swine flu, but it's different from the common swine flu that sweeps through hog farms every year, said Mark Whitney, a swine expert with the University of Minnesota extension service.
"It's a completely unique virus," Whitney said.
The pork industry was just emerging from a tough year as high feed prices battered the industry, and the linking of a deadly flu to the industry served up more bad news. Share prices for major pork retailers fell Monday, including Austin, Minn.-based Hormel, which saw a 2 percent drop. Hog and pork belly futures prices fell the maximum amount allowed Monday before trading stopped on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
Swine feedstocks -- corn and soybeans -- also suffered on the markets Monday.
"They beat up the grain markets today," said Terry Wolters, a hog farmer and president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. He said most farmers were hoping for a profitable summer after surviving through months of painful losses due to the high price of animal feed. "It's just going to make it more difficult if it takes hogs down with it," he said.
A Hormel spokeswoman said she expects the flu's name to change, perhaps to the label suggested by the World Animal Health board, the North American flu. "It's not an animal health or a food safety issue," said Julie Craven, of Hormel. "It's a public health issue, and it's a human-to-human issue."
Gene Hugoson, Minnesota agriculture commissioner, a hog farmer himself, said pork producers should follow routine precautions, but that the greater danger likely comes from people who have recently traveled to Mexico.
"I'm still eating pork," Hugoson said.
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329