27 de abril de 2009

"Swine Flu & U.S. Pork Industry"

The U.S. pork industry shifted into rapid-response mode following the news of an outbreak of swine flu in humans, trying to quell disease fears and protect an already weak pork market. Although there appears to be no evidence yet tying the flu to human contact with pigs, Russia banned meat imports from Mexico, several U.S. states and nine Latin American nations.

In a news release Sunday, the National Pork Producers Council said, "Pork is safe to eat." The producers council, citing the Centers for Disease Control, said "preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs." The association also said people generally don't contract swine flu through eating pork or pork products, especially if the meat is "properly handled and cooked." But the council urged producers to tighten their protocols to protect pigs from the virus, including restricting public access to barns.

The flu threatens to pose a challenge for an industry that has already seen exports decline as the recession has hurt global meat demand. In February, pork exports were down about 13% versus February 2008, said the U.S. Agriculture Department.

High feed costs also are hurting the industry, with many pork producers barely profitable. Smithfield Foods Inc., one of the world's largest pork producers, Smithfield, Va., reported a $103.1 million net loss in its most recent quarter.

The industry has been "looking for any signs of strength," said Joseph Kerns, purchasing director at pork producer Iowa Select Farms, Iowa Falls, Iowa. The flu "is potentially another dagger in the back," he said, but "it's not time to push the panic button yet."

The World Health Organization said Sunday there is no evidence swine flu is spread by exposure to pork or pigs. A preliminary investigation by the CDC did not show that any of the 11 people in the U.S. who contracted the virus had been in contact with pigs.

"Based on the CDC's analysis, there does not seem to be any reason to restrict pork imports or consumption, but this situation is so new that it undoubtedly will take a few days for the correct information to reach all parties," Jim Herlihy, vice president of information services for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, an industry group.

According to the group's Web site, in 2008 Russia was this nation's fourth-largest international customer for pork and pork variety meats, with 217,767 metric tons worth $476 million. For January and February 2009, exports to Russia were down 49% from year ago, at 13,721 tons valued at $24.8 million.

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