Despite a media blitz, a mere five percent of consumers are “highly concerned” about the recent outbreak of Novel influenza A (H1N1), formerly known as Swine Flu, according to a recent SupermarketGuru quick poll. The poll, which asked consumers about their attitudes toward the virus, found that fewer than half (47%) are “slightly concerned”; 24% are “not concerned at all.”
Ninety-three percent feel it is safe to eat pork products, and, after an initial dip, many retailers are reporting that pork sales are returning to previous levels. But the industry is now faced with the challenge of assuaging consumer fears in the coming months. While the spread of disease is continuing and must be taken seriously – as of May 22, 2009 there were 6552 confirmed cases in 48 states – it will be our job to undo the damage caused to the food industry by the unfortunate, original naming of the virus.
The first name given to the flu was based on the fact that this novel H1N1 influenza virus contained genetic material of swine, human and avian origin. The original “swine flu” name, however, led to confusion about the safety of pork. As a result, all major public health organizations have renamed the flu H1N1. From the very outset of the flu outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control said that pork was safe to eat and to handle.
National Pork Board surveys tracking consumer beliefs about the H1N1 virus and eating pork mirror the results from the SupermarketGuru quick poll. The vast majority of consumers in both surveys understand that H1N1 is not a foodborne illness. As the World Health Organization, CDC, and USDA have added their names to the growing list of government bodies declaring pork to be safe, there have been steady increases in the percentage of consumers who understand that it is safe to eat and handle pork.
U.S. pork producers take a number of precautions to keep workers and animals healthy and to prevent the spread of illness. Even large operations subdivide the herd into separate buildings, so that the pork producer can more carefully monitor the health of the herd. If a pig in one part of the herd becomes ill, this further prevents any spread of illness.
Flu viruses do not normally move from pigs to humans, but it is possible, though not very likely, that a farm worker in close contact with a sick pig could get the flu from the pig. Along those same lines, a sick human can infect a healthy pig. Even if H1N1 were found in U.S. pigs, says Ceci Snyder, RD, Assistant V.P. Consumer Marketing for the National Pork Board, it would not be a food safety issue because sick animals are not allowed to go to market.
Whereas H1N1 is a serious threat to human health, it has not been found in U.S. pigs. The USDA is recommending that the pork industry take all appropriate measures to protect swine. Also, in keeping with standard food safety protocol, retailers should always advise customers to cook foods to the proper temperature.
“Scientists are still trying to determine the original source of the novel H1N1 virus. What we do know for sure is that it is a respiratory illness, and not a food-borne illness, regardless of where it originated from originally,” says Snyder.
Thankfully, a recent MarketWatch story said Smithfield Foods confirmed that pork prices and demand for pork are rebounding since their initial drop several weeks ago. Smithfield CEO Larry Pope referred to the initial decline as a “three week event” that is almost over.
“Our consumer research indicates that pork sales are back on track and that the vast majority of consumers are confident about the safety of pork,” says Snyder. “In fact, consumer participation at our pork grilling event in Wichita, Kansas was one of the highest turn-outs we have ever had.”
First detected in the U.S. in April 2009, H1N1 spreads from person to person in much the same way that regular seasonal influenza viruses spread. To prevent the spread of respiratory illness, the CDC recommends frequent hand washing with soap and water and/or the use of alcohol-based hand cleaners. Sick persons should stay home and limit contact with others.
An updated case count of confirmed influenza A (H1N1) infections in the United States is kept at http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/investigation.htm.