H1N1 Flu Outbreak and N.C. agriculture

by | Apr 30, 2009

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler

I’ve got to admit that I’ve been a little frustrated this week as I’ve read all the news reports about the H1N1 influenza outbreak that continues to be called “swine” flu.  I’ve been working with my counterparts in the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to get a federal declaration on the official name of this virus. As I was getting ready to post this to the Web, I received word that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that “swine flu” is to be discontinued by federal agencies and the current influenza outbreak should be referred to as the “H1N1 Flu Outbreak.”  I’m glad to see this change.

I’m glad the federal government is realizing that this was a misnomer from the start. At this time, no pigs in the United States or Mexico have been found to be infected or sick with the virus. As a matter of fact, to date, this strain has never been identified in pigs anywhere in the world, and scientists do not know whether this new strain causes any type of illness in swine. But because of the name, people are shying away from eating pork despite the fact that scientists across the globe from government and animal health organizations agree that humans have no risk from eating pork or pork products. North Carolina is the second largest producer of hogs in the country, producing nearly $2 billion in cash receipts alone. So what we call this flu could have a significant impact on N.C. farms.

In no way am I trying to downplay the seriousness of this outbreak. My team and I are working with state public health officials, other agencies and pork producers to monitor the situation. We are ready and prepared to go into a full-scale emergency response mode if necessary. NCDA&CS works with federal, state and local agriculture and public health officials to foster cooperation on human and animal health issues through a “one medicine” approach. We constantly monitor swine herds for the presence of influenza and other diseases. In addition, we’ve also conducted numerous exercises pertaining to influenza detection and response.

Until we know whether or not humans can spread this virus to pigs, it is important for farmers to minimize the risk of exposing hogs to the virus. Good bio-security practices are essential to minimizing risk to farms, and pork producers should take several precautions, including monitoring workers for flu-like symptoms, reporting sick animals to veterinarians immediately, permitting only essential workers and vehicles onto farms, and not loaning equipment or borrowing them from other farms. To see a complete list of these recommendations, visit our department newsroom here.

We have also put together a list of questions and answers that farmers and consumers will find useful. To see a full list of these questions, follow this link. Here are a few that I think are important to note:

  • Is there a known outbreak of  influenza in North Carolina pigs? What is being done to monitor for this disease? The NCDA&CS State Diagnostic Lab has routinely monitored samples from the N.C. swine industry for all swine influenza viruses for more than 10 years.  All influenza viruses are identified and any unusual ones are sent out for additional identification.  With the hundreds of swine samples tested through our lab system, there have been no influenza viruses that match those causing the current human-to-human transmissions and illnesses.
  • I live near a hog farm. Am I at greater risk? What should I do? There is no reason to believe that you are at risk. The hog industry in North Carolina is continuously monitored for any swine influenza viruses by the NCDA&CS State Diagnostic Labs, with no influenza viruses found that resemble the cause of the current human influenza outbreak.  The N.C. Department of Public Health states that human transmissions occur from human contact with human-contaminated surfaces and failure to follow good hygiene practices, particularly failure to practice frequent hand washing.
  • Is pork safe to eat? Yes, according to the USDA and the Centers for Disease Control. There is no known transmission of the virus through the consumption or handling of raw or cooked pork or pork products. Pork should always be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill food-borne germs that might be present.

Our farmers are struggling to stay in business in this economy and I feel it is important to take the blame of this outbreak off of them.