Business & Policy
Stories continue to hurt agri-food industry
Among other sources that are awash with media reports concerning the flu outbreak in Mexico are two stories: one that suggests there should be a name change, and the other about the damaging effects of spreading ineffective and inaccurate information on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
April 28, 2009
Paris –The flu virus spreading around the world should not be called "swine flu" as it also contains avian and human components and no pig was found ill with the disease so far, the World Animal Health body said on Monday.
A more logical name for it would be "North-American influenza", a name based on its geographic origin just like the Spanish influenza, another human flu pandemic with animal origin that killed more than 50 million people in 1918-1919. "The virus has not been isolated in animals to date. Therefore it is not justified to name this disease swine influenza," the Paris-based organization said in a statement.
Fears of a global flu pandemic are growing around the world after 103 people were killed in Mexico and new infections were found in the United States and Canada and possible cases as far afield as Europe, Israel and New Zealand. The OIE warned that if the virus was shown to cause disease in animals, virus circulation could worsen the regional and global situation for public health. Fears there could be a global flu pandemic which would hurt fragile world economics has led to a broad-based decline in stocks, oil and other commodity markets on Monday. Grain and oilseed markets fells sharply on concern that the outbreak could reduce feed demand for grain-hungry pigs.
The pork industry was facing plenty of challenges before the swine flu outbreak became a story over the weekend. Now the industry is attempting to engage — and correct — the vast social media networks that are spreading misinformation about the virus.
Bloggers, Facebook posts and Twitter are among the non-moderated networks through which many consumers spread information about and read up on issues. By Monday afternoon, Facebook had more than 100 "group" Web pages dedicated to swine flu.
Wrote one Facebook poster: "MmMmM BACON. & all you have to deal with is a little fever nausea and diarrhea and a chance of death but other than that your cool!" (sic).
Among bloggers, a large number are spreading the word from the CDC, WHO and the Obama administration that the virus is mis-named, treatable with medicines such as Tamiflu and unrelated to swine so far.
Others, however, are picking up and repeating a story that appeared in a Mexican newspaper near the town where the outbreak seems to have started, in which residents (not the authorities) blame a nearby pig production facility. "Swine-flu outbreak could be linked to Smithfield factory farms" is the headline on a blog entry on the Grist site by food editor Tom Philpott, himself co-founder of Maverick Farms, an educational, non-profit farm in North Carolina.
(Smithfield's business unit has not been named by any authorities of the Mexican government as a possible culprit. The company, in a statement on its Web site, said it has "found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza … in Mexico," and that the Mexican businesses "routinely administer influenza virus vaccination … and conduct monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza.")
Twitter seems particularly adept at spreading misinformation, with such statements as "Swine flu? Wow. All that pork infecting people … " and "pigs are the reason for swine flu, don't eat pork."
Industry groups and government officials are doing their best to battle the pandemic of inaccuracies. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley tweeted his own message on Twitter: "U can't get swine flu from eating pork. Eatup. Regardless of epidemic."
The world organization for animal health OIE in Paris released a statement noting "it is not justified to name this disease swine influenza" and positing that the name be changed to "North American influenza" due to its geographic origins.
North American Meat Processors Association, American Meat Institute, National Meat Association, National Pork Producers Council and the Pork Board also released statements decrying the fear that pork could infect humans.
And from Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack released two statements about the outbreak and the safety of pork and USDA published a Q&A about the virus.
"It is important to remember that … swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food. In fact, cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F kills all viruses and other foodborne pathogens. Eating properly handled and cooked pork or pork products is safe," Vilsack said in a statement.
Still, it's hard to keep pace with the viral nature of social media. In the course of a five-minute search on Facebook Monday afternoon, the number of "group" Web pages dedicated to the new flu jumped to 115 from 108.