By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Right up until, moments later, a blustering Nicholas Giordano, the lobby's international trade specialist, burst in, turned to communications director Dave Warner and said: "Hey, media boy, did you know there were only 100 reported cases in Mexico? This is a [expletive] normal flu!"
Giordano said several countries were restricting imports of U.S. pork. The lobbyists thought they had Honduras on their side, and the country was planning to lift its restrictions.
"But now we don't know," Giordano said.
"They're not following the science," Warner lamented. "It's a respiratory illness. It's not a food illness."
"There's no evidence that it's in the U.S. pig population," asserted Jennifer Greiner, the lobby's in-house swine veterinarian, who moonlights as a TV spokeswoman for pork.
Ferrell noted: "Pork is the meat of choice around the world. Forty-four percent of people globally eat pork.
"We need to communicate to our foreign markets that we're still open for business," he added.
Ferrell asked a staff member about a letter the lobby had drafted, for members of Congress to sign, urging Obama to protect U.S. pork exports.
The signatures should be ready soon, lobbyist Audrey Adamson said.
"It's all about courage," Ferrell told her, "getting Obama to be vigilant with keeping the markets open."
Oh, he added, make sure members of Congress have their "one-minutes": short, ready-made statements about the safety of pork products. "They've got to have their talking points," he said.
Soon the team was in talks with a crisis communications firm to develop an ad campaign to convince people that pork is safe to eat. Ferrell took notes as the messaging gurus outlined their options: focus on opinion-makers inside the Beltway with high-frequency ads in Capitol Hill papers. Or go for a more expensive national audience.
Better yet -- what about staging a photo-op in which Obama would serve pork at the White House? Maybe D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty could take Obama out for lunch at a local barbecue joint, the White House press corps in tow.
When the discussion ended, the lobbyists wondered whether Obama even likes pork.
"We don't know," Adamson said.
"He's not Muslim," Warner said. "We know that."
Regardless, the president and his administration seem to have gotten the message. As of Tuesday, federal officials had stopped saying "swine flu," instead referring to the virus strain by a more scientific name: H1N1. The name may be technical and confusing, but it's also blessedly swine-free.
Ferrell's shop is in near-constant contact with political officials at the Agriculture Department and at Obama's trade office. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack -- a former governor of Iowa and longtime friend of the pork industry -- stood at the North Lawn of the White House to face television cameras. "Pork is safe to eat in this country," he assured cable news viewers, even noting in one interview that he had eaten pork for breakfast and lunch that day.
But the government's turnabout may not be enough. The news media has stuck with its swine flu designation. Even one of Ferrell's pork lobbyists, Adamson, goofed the other day at a breakfast fundraiser for Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.), a top member of the Agriculture Committee. "I slipped and called it 'swine,' " she confessed. H1N1 "doesn't really roll off the tongue."
The lobbyists scurried to their offices -- no time even for a ham sandwich. Everywhere in their offices were pigs. Piggy banks and pig statues. Pink pigs and black-and-white pigs. Brass pig bookends and blue-and-pink pig stocking hats. Plastic pigs, wooden pigs and stuffed pigs.
Ferrell poked into Warner's office.
"Anything new?" he asked.
"The World Health Organization just named it 'influenza A,' " Warner informed him.
"Well, [expletive]!" the boss exulted. "If they only did that at the beginning."