The Pork Lobbyists, Ready to Reassure
Monday, May 4, 2009
It was Day 7 of the great swine flu outbreak, and inside the eighth-floor conference room in a concrete hulk of an office building on Capitol Hill, the pork lobbyists were in crisis mode. The National Pork Producers Council, whose members were watching with dismay as hog prices fell, labored to reverse the public dialogue about the fast-spreading virus and to convince consumers that the "other white meat" was still safe to eat.
Pigs can be consumed, the lobbyists insisted; they can even be petted and hugged, or tickled until they squeal. But pork cannot be blamed for the pandemonium gripping the globe. The culprit, evidently, is H1N1, a strain of the flu virus. If only folks could remember that, the lobbyists said.
For going on two weeks, the Washington professionals who represent the nation's 67,000 pork producers have been in a mad dash to, as President Obama once said, put lipstick on this pig. Hundreds of people have been infected in more than a dozen countries, prompting the closure of scores of schools across the United States, including four in the Washington region.
In Canada over the weekend, officials said a farmworker passed the virus to a herd of hogs. Although the farmer and the pigs apparently have recovered, and top U.S. and Mexican officials yesterday projected a cautious optimism that the new virus is not as lethal as initially feared, intense worldwide focus on swine flu shows no signs of abating.
Each morning, the pork lobbyists assemble to figure out how bad it got overnight. On this day last week, word came that officials in Egypt had ordered the slaughter of every pig in sight -- about 300,000 of them. In Iowa, the first two possible cases of swine flu were reported, and the Russians and Chinese were considering banning pork imports from that Midwestern state, America's biggest hog producer. On CNN, a news anchor teased an upcoming flu segment with footage of dead pigs.
"Worried about the swine flu?" the anchor asked. "Well, it could be worse. You could be a pig farmer."
Or someone whose job it is to represent them.
Everywhere, everyone was calling it swine flu, and at the pork producers council, there was a battle underway to change that. The new day began with fresh coffee at the long mahogany conference table in a room so staid, illuminated by fluorescent lights and with the air conditioner humming along, one would never know it was ground zero for the pork industry -- save for the bronze pig statue resting on the windowsill, beside an American flag.
Lobbyist Kirk Ferrell led his team in what he called "policy triage." There were conference calls with crisis communications consultants to develop messaging for advertisements, dozens of reporters to spin, pork industry titans in Des Moines seeking updates, negotiations with U.S. trade officials over international exports.
Ferrell shared the latest statistic: Hog prices had dropped by $5 a head since the first reports of swine flu surfaced April 24.
"This thing has speeded up," he said. "We're still trying to get a feel for what's happening in the meat case." But, he added, "This is a free-for-all, and we've all got to go to work."
Still, Ferrell, a 20-year veteran pork lobbyist, appeared relaxed, leaning back in his executive chair.