May 9, 2009
Swine flu's real victims: Should hog farmers & meat processors sue the World Health Organisation?
The livestock industry, not people, is this flu outbreak's real casualties.
An eFeedLink Hot Topic
by Eric J. BROOKS
Introduction: Is history repeating itself?
Late April's influenza A H1N1 swine flu outbreak sent a chill down the spine of meat processors, importers and feed traders around the world. Personally, it reminded me of an earlier "swine flu" outbreak 33 years ago in 1976. At that time, fear drove millions of Americans to be vaccinated against a supposedly emerging "deadly global flu epidemic."
Here is what really happened in that earlier, now forgotten, "swine flu" outbreak: one American soldier died of swine flu but hundreds of Americans were made sick, 25 died and others were left permanently paralysed - by a hastily put together swine flu vaccine, not the flu! The 1976 epidemic quickly died out but millions of American hogs were slaughtered and the US hog and pork processing sector lost billions dollars of business, all for nothing. Are we over reacting all over again?
Using fear to block imported meat
Within days of late April 2009's outbreak announcement, hysteria spread much faster than the virus. Scores of countries reacted by banning pork and/or hog imports from the United States, Mexico, Canada and other afflicted jurisdictions.
In Asia, China, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, India, the United Arab Emirates banned pork from Mexico, the United States, Canada or selected American states near the US-Mexico border.
Russia, for example, banned imports of all uncooked pork, beef and poultry exported from Mexico, Texas, California and Kansas. Russia even banned raw pork imports from Central America and the Caribbean, even though the latter two did not have any swine flu cases. China, the world's largest pork consumer, banned imports of live pigs and pork products from Mexico, Texas, California and Kansas.
Egypt intends to slaughter all its hogs, even though not a single swine flu case has been reported among either its human population or livestock. Similarly, the Philippines, citing an unusual reverse transmission of H1N1 from a farmer into his hog herd, blocked all hog imports from Canada.
Blocked imports cannot make up for falling consumer demand
Yet this chill extends far beyond the meat processing sector or large pork exporting countries. For one thing, it is causing a change in meat trade flows throughout Asia, both good and bad.
On one hand, Francisco Buencamino of the Philippine Association of Meat Processors says that her industry has ceased importing pork from the United States and opted to source it from neighbouring Asian countries, particularly South Korea. Superficially, this is music to the ears of Korean pork producers, as they have watched their domestic pork sales been undercut by cheaper American imports over the last several years.
On the other hand, additional demand for Asian pork arising from barriers against western imports will be swamped by falling demand for pork, as consumers fear for their health and switch to other meat lines.
Worst yet, from Moscow to Seoul, this flu scare easily justifies protectionist agendas that seek to block out imports of less expensive meat. Coinciding with a serious global recession that puts pressure on countries to erect trade barriers, this H1N1 outbreak is providing the perfect justification to erect trade barriers that may remain in place even after the crisis passes.
In an interview with Reuters, Stuart Harbinson, senior trade policy advisor at law firm Winston & Strawn and former chairman of agriculture negotiations at the World Trade Organization, stated that this epidemic, "is not supposed to be an unjustifiable barrier to trade." Yet, that is exactly what it is being used for.
WHO: Unqualified statements miscommunicated into scare mongering?
Sadly, there is a great irony in all this. First of all, unlike SARS, avian flu H5N1 or ebola, even in Mexico itself, swine flu has killed only a small percentage of its victims. At the time of publication, in the United States, even after several hundred infections, only one infant, brought in from Mexico, has died.
By May 7, 2009, 23 countries officially reported 2,099 cases of influenza A (H1N1) infection, with only 44 deaths in the entire world from this illness. 43 of those 44 deaths occurred in Mexico, something that some researchers attribute to poor Mexican living conditions, not the flu itself. This means that H1N1's overall death rate is 2.1 percent. Outside of Mexico, H1N1's death rate is approximately zero. Almost all countries reporting swine flu cases have not even reported any deaths at all.
From a scientific point of view, that is not surprising: according to a Time Magazine article published on April 27, "the 2009 H1N1 lacks a gene that is present in highly virulent flu viruses, such as the one in 1918." On May 4, Wired Magazine reported that America's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did not find similarities between today's H1N1 virus and flu viruses from previous deadly epidemic.
Strangely, although this H1N1 virus appears far tamer than initially feared and is no longer killing many people, the World Health Organization (WHO) keeps warning us that it could mutate into a dangerous virus. Here is what the WHO does not say: Even everyday viruses that cause harmless coughs and colds, can, in theory, mutate into global killer - at any time - and they do not even need livestock to do this! So why does the WHO keep repeating that H1N1 could turn into a killer virus, when this also is true of every other non-lethal virus out there?
Obviously, despite its good, honourable intentions, the WHO's unqualified public statements have seriously damaged the reputation of pork and threatened the livelihood of millions of hog farmers. From San Francisco to Shanghai, the WHO's miscommunicated, misunderstood public statements have made many consumers afraid to eat pork. Most ironic of all, the WHO itself has stated that the H1N1 virus cannot survive the heat used in cooking or making processed pork products.
Still, with few deaths relative to infections and no signs of increasing mortality, the WHO raised the swine pandemic threat level to 5 out of 6, while clearly stating that this new flu strain cannot be acquired by eating infected pork. With so much economic damage done in such a short time, feed, livestock and meat processing stakeholders need to ask themselves, 'do we even know what a pandemic really is?'
Do you really know what a 'pandemic' is?
At his website (, leading US medical practitioner Dr. Joseph Mercola clarifies that, "A pandemic does not necessarily mean what you think it does… All a pandemic means is that a new infectious disease is spreading throughout the world." Consequently, if a new, common cold virus jumps from poultry to humans and infects millions of people without killing anyone, this too, is, by the WHO's definition, a "pandemic."
How many people know that pandemics might not cause any deaths? Should this word really be making us erect barriers to meat imports, quarantine people and stop eating chicken and pork? Should governments and consumers allow this word to slaughter millions of livestock, damage their meat processing industry, block imports, cut livestock farmers' incomes and stop people from eating pork?
Confused scientists keep changing their minds
Strangest of all, by the end of the outbreak's first week, researchers concluded that this flu, while infecting swine, is not really a classical swine flu virus. Apparently, it is about one-third swine flu virus genes, with the rest containing elements of bird flu (H5N1) and other human flu strains. Some researchers even admitted that this outbreak was incorrectly named "swine flu."
Most damning of all, this is not the first time that scientists have got their facts wrong about viruses that can infest millions of livestock and human beings. These mistakes are costing livestock stakeholders billions of dollars.
Even in 1976, when swine flu failed to break out, it was claimed that "swine flu" was behind the 1918 pandemic that killed tens of millions more than World War I itself. That led to the mass slaughter of many US hogs in 1976.  By the early 21st century, they had stopped blaming swine flu for the 1918 pandemic. Without ever admitting to their earlier mistake, scientists now claimed that the 1918 flu was the forerunner of today's H5N1 "bird flu." Thanks to that scientific conclusion, Thailand's fresh chicken exports to Europe were decimated.
Chickens or pigs? Viruses or bacteria?
So first, they thought dangerous 1918 flu epidemic came from hogs. Then they thought chickens were to blame for the millions of 1918 influenza deaths. In this latest H1N1 outbreak, they are again blaming hogs. Hold on to your hats, because it appears that scientists are... about to change their minds again!
Dr. Mercola reports that, "Just a couple of months ago, scientists concluded that the 1918 flu pandemic that killed between 50-100 million people worldwide in a matter of 18 months - which all these worst case scenarios are built upon - was NOT due to the flu itself! Instead, they discovered the real culprit was strep [streptococcus bacteria] infections."
This is a serious, incredibly grave statement. If true, it means that poultry farmers from Thailand to China, Vietnam to India, all of whom slaughtered billions of chickens to prevent a global H5N1 outbreak, have been wasting their time. All those lost poultry exports, billions of dollars in financial losses and farmers put out of business was in vain, if indeed, bacteria, not a virus, caused previous flu pandemic deaths.
Apparently, while public health authorities act as if they are very certain themselves, researchers are changing their minds all the time. Will flu epidemiologists change their minds again? Find another livestock species to blame? Cause meat and livestock stakeholders around the world to suffer billions of dollars in unnecessary losses? Time will tell, but history suggests that they could indeed do so.
Should meat & livestock industry stakeholders launch lawsuits?
Regardless of the correct answer as to how serious flu epidemics arise, one serious fact is unmistakably clear. From the 1970s right through to today, public health authorities have done great, sometimes unnecessary damage to meat processors and livestock farmers, everywhere in the world.
Time and time again, unqualified, unexplained statements regarding the relationship between livestock and disease has put unnecessary fear into millions of people, created trade barriers and threatened the livelihoods of hog farmers and meat processors from Kansas to China.
All over the world, sales of pork are falling, exports are being blocked, meat processors are suffering losses and farmers are losing a big part of their annual income. Yet, there is very little evidence that anyone's health or life was ever threatened. Does anyone in the feed or livestock industry ever recall researchers saying, 'we are sorry that our mistakes have created so much chaos in the livestock industry and unnecessary fear in millions of human beings?'
Give public health authorities a taste of the free market
Out in the free market, when someone says something that is false or unprovable about a business's products and it results in lost sales or a damaged reputation, lawsuits inevitably follow. In most countries, making untrue or unprovable statements that result in lost sales or reputation is a serious civil offence, usually known as defamation or libel.
This article has shown that in the past, ambiguous, unqualified, or erroneous public health statements have cost meat and livestock producers billions of dollars in lost revenue. It also demonstrates that meat and livestock industry might once more suffer billions of dollars in losses, due to erroneous, unqualified, or miscommunicated public health statements.
Given the unnecessary loss of reputation and monetary losses suffered by meat processors, livestock farmers and meat sellers around the world, time and time again, perhaps they should consider suing the WHO and other public health bodies for defamation and loss of income.
At the very least, they should approach these large, global public health agencies and work out a framework to ensure that in the future, their public health pronouncements do not unnecessarily jeopardise the livelihood of livestock farmers, meat processors and their employees ever again.
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