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.
"If the CDC had called it anything but swine flu, I personally don't think you would have any of this," he said of the most recent downturn. "I think there's permanent damage."
For the record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed the virus's name twice, from "swine influenza" to "swine-origin influenza A (H1N1)" to "novel H1N1," purging it of all animal reference, even though molecular analysis showed that it almost certainly arose in a gene-swapping "reassortment" in some pig somewhere. Where and when is a mystery; no flu viruses sampled from North American herds in recent years show any trace of it.
Others, though, hardly give it a thought.
"This virus hasn't affected us in any way," said Ole Hansen.
"I haven't thought about it for a second today," said Soren Bank.
The two Danes are the founder and chief commercial officer of Hamlet Protein A/S. The company makes a soy-based feed ingredient for young animals: puppies, calves and piglets. It owns land near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it plans to build a 30-worker factory, but it has delayed construction because of the economic doldrums of American pork. H1N1 hasn't changed that.
A big theme of Pork Expo is heightened "biosecurity," the strategy of keeping pigs in a highly controlled environment -- meaning a lifetime indoors -- and limiting their contact with all other animals, including human beings.
Tom Burkgren, a 53-year-old Iowa veterinarian who is executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, is all in favor of that. But he's also a realist.
"I think it would be naive to say it will never be in pigs," he said of the new flu strain. "I think what we are preparing for as an industry is that it will one day be in pigs."
Having a plan for that, in fact, is a major piece of the advice being given to farmers here.
Elsewhere at the Pork Expo, the reminder of H1N1 is little more than a mandatory hand-sanitizing station "for the protection of our pigs" at the door to the swine barn.
Inside, Ella Marie Jordan, 5 1/2 ("don't forget the half," reminds her mother, Monica), was getting ready to show her first pig. The animal's name is Candy, and its birthday is Dec. 27, the same day as Ella Marie's grandfather, Frank Feeser, of Taneytown, Md. Candy was raised on his farm in Carroll County and then brought to Missouri, where Ella Marie lives, so she could get a taste of farming.
Spraying down the pink Yorkshire, 45-pound Ella Marie found herself 200 pounds to the worse in a brief jostling match with Candy in her slatted pen. There were a few tears but not enough to dissuade Ella Marie from showing the animal in the Junior National Swine Show.
Ella Marie likes her pig, which will eventually go back to Maryland to have piglets. She wants to be a teacher, not a farmer. She wore a pink shirt with a sequined pig on the front. She didn't have much to say about H1N1.