By CATHERINE KRIKSTAN
ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 24, 2009) - Since last spring's detection of the H1N1 virus, hogs have gotten a bad rap.
Because of the misnomer "swine flu," some people believe the virus can be contracted from eating pork.
But farmers are worried that humans are the ones who will spread the virus to pigs, whether on a farm or at the county fair.
Pork producers remain "concerned that people think pigs have [the H1N1 virus] and [that] they're going to give it to humans," said Tom Hartsock, a former pig farmer and associate professor emeritus of animal science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "When in reality, it's probably the other way around."
Although the virus has not been detected in swine herds in the United States, it has been detected in pigs elsewhere. In May, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced the infection of a herd in Alberta, likely exposed to the virus from a Canadian recently returned from Mexico.
Ken Bauer, a third-generation hog farmer who raises breeding stock and show pigs in Woodbine, worries about his herd contracting H1N1. Because of shows, he and his herd are "intermingling with other people and other pigs all the time."
Nevertheless, his "herd health is as high as [he and his veterinarian] can make it." To protect his pigs from disease, he takes "every measure that is available," from disinfecting his shoes before he enters a barn to reserving a separate building in which outside visitors can view his pigs.
Other bio-security measures include designating vehicles to remain on the farm, showering and changing your clothes before entering pig barns, and staying home when you're sick.
"If a producer or the workers on a farm are ill with influenza-like symptoms, they should not be going near their swine," said John Clifford, chief veterinary medical officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As for non-farmers, "whether you're at a fair or anywhere else, if you have influenza-like symptoms, you shouldn't even be out there. And you should stay away from farm animals," Clifford said.
For most commercial hog farmers, protecting swine herds from disease is nothing new.
"Most swine farmers ... were careful about bio-security long before H1N1 became an issue because pigs are subject to a number of contagious diseases that can be carried by humans and also, of course, carried by other pigs," Hartsock said. This virus is "just one more in a stream of contagious diseases that could affect swine herds."
In a conference call earlier this month, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan lamented the potential "fallout for [pork] producers [and] the pain that's out there in the countryside from loss of markets."
"We have had significant loss in our export markets around pork because of the novel H1N1," said Merrigan, even as international health organizations continue to reassure consumers that the virus is not transmitted by eating pork.
In the weeks after the virus was first detected, "the price [that Maryland pork producers received for their product] went down significantly and it stayed down," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Pork Producers Association. "If everybody called it H1N1, we probably wouldn't have lost the market."
"If you hear something called swine flu," Hoot added, "you assume it comes from pigs."
The term "swine flu" caught on after early testing found the virus was partly comprised of genetic material from swine influenza, said Steven Kappes, deputy administrator of the USDA's Animal Production and Protection Agency. Later tests also detected genetic material from avian and human influenzas.
If swine herds within the United States contract H1N1 the likely next step is vaccination, Hartsock said. This would allow pigs to "live with the disease much like humans live with flu viruses or colds."
But Hoot disagrees.
"When you're losing $50 on every pig that you sell, you're not going to go out and pay extra money to vaccinate it," she said.
Sick pigs are usually quarantined, and aren't sent to market until they are well. But H1N1 is a respiratory disease and "has no impact on the carcass or the meat that comes from it," Hartsock said.
"You wouldn't get a cold from eating a piece of ham from a pig that had a cold."
Megan E. Gustafson contributed to this article.