At World Pork Expo in Des Moines, Nobody Is Saying the Words 'Swine Flu'

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

DES MOINES -- Here at the World Pork Expo, H1N1 influenza is many contradictory things -- an unfolding disaster and a passing inconvenience, a cause of the pork industry's woes and an excuse for them, evidence of good animal husbandry and a challenge to it.

About the only thing it isn't is "swine flu." Never should have been called that, everyone agrees -- and don't even think of calling it that now.

H1N1 flu is casting a distinctly dappled shadow across the Iowa State Fair Grounds, where 18,000 pork producers (including about 3,000 from 50 foreign countries), 450 exhibitors and 2,500 pigs are spending much of this week.

On Grand Avenue, between the Colosseum-like grandstand and the cavernous Varied Industries Building, where the morning air is scented by wood smoke cooking ribs for half a dozen hospitality tents, influenza virus crosses almost everyone's mind at least once.

But that's less often than the swine business's other problems.

Pig farming is in an economic downturn that predates the nation's current one. H1N1 is just piling on.

"I wish I had better news for you," Don Butler, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said Wednesday as the three-day event opened. His news was that over the next six months, enough farmers would go out of business to shrink the sow herd -- the swine industry's four-legged engine -- by about 5 percent.

The pork industry has had six quarters in which production costs were greater than market prices. Business was looking up this spring until the new flu strain emerged in late April. Now, producers can expect to lose $11.16 on every hundred pounds of pig they sell, nearly the mirror image of the $11.36 profit they made in 2006, said Neil Dierks, another official of the council.

"We can't lock in a profit until well into next year, and the problem is getting from here to there," Dierks said.

Pig farmers can't just hold on to their animals and wait until the price improves. The animals get too big. In the mechanized world of pork production, animals go to slaughter when they are about 270 pounds. Above 320 pounds, butchering becomes a custom job -- with the carcass sold at a commensurate discount. Feed the animals an extra year, and many will be pushing a half a ton and loaded with fat -- not the pig of choice for contemporary American diets.

A big problem at the moment is the near-total ban on U.S. pork imposed by China, the second-biggest importer (behind Japan), and a partial ban by Russia, the fifth-leading importer. These restrictions were ostensibly taken because of fear that pork could transmit influenza, a possibility that all international human and animal health organizations discounted immediately.

Randy Spronk, a 49-year-old pig farmer from Edgerton, Minn., thinks it was the name that pretty much did it.

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