Share “Flu outbreak alarms Oklahoma hog farmers”

BY SONYA COLBERG Published: May 8, 2009
When one of Bartlesville hog farmer Lonnie Hoelscher’s part-time employees returned three weeks ago from a missionary trip to Mexico, Hoelscher gave him some bad news: He wouldn’t be allowed to step foot on the sow and baby pig farm.

Hoelscher said he hasn’t heard from federal health or agriculture officials that swine flu is expected to be a problem in the swine herd.

"But we can’t go on as usual and not be concerned about it,” he said.

The international scourge, swine flu, is making picky hog farmers more cautious as it reaches deeper into their wallets.

The flu is costing the pig industry roughly $5 million per day, said Roy Lee Lindsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Pork Council. Pork is safe to eat, health officials say, and no American pig herd has been infected with the flu so far. It has been identified in a now-quarantined Canadian pig herd.

Despite assurances that pork is safe to consume, some countries have banned U.S. pork, causing pork to flood the U.S. market. The glut led to lower prices.

Hoelscher, who sells about 200 pigs a week, said the swine flu scare is causing him to lose at least $1,000 a week..

"Even if (the swine flu scare) went away right now, it would take more than a year to make up for what I lost in three weeks,” he said.

No time for inspections
Despite the concern, pork and agriculture officials contend it isn’t time for federal inspectors to visit the nation’s self-regulated hog farms.

"No. Absolutely not,” Lindsey said. More people tromping into the farms brings the risk of transmitting pig diseases, he said. Lindsey said farms are limiting visitors and telling workers to stay home if they appear ill or have ill family members.

Tyson Foods, one of the large companies that contract with some of the 15,000 Oklahoma pig farm workers, said in a statement, "Inspections by outside regulators are unnecessary when we already have the expertise and experience available to address animal health issues that arise.”

Jack Carson, spokesman for the state Agriculture, Food and Forestry Department agreed.

"There is no cause for alarm,” he said.

Safety measures

Lonnie Hoelscher, a Bartlesville independent pig producer, said he sometimes allowed visitors from the local school or church to tour the farm. When he did, everyone wore throw-away suits, boots and respiratory masks and he made sure no one had been around other pigs in the previous three days.

His pigs are kept in buildings so there’s no contact with outside animals, rodents or wild animals, he said. Hoelscher and other workers had separate sets of shoes to feed the pigs or work with cattle or horses.

"The idea of pigs running around in a mud lot is not very healthy, one, and, two, is messy,” he said. "They are very clean animals if you give them the proper environment; give them opportunity to stay clean.”

With the concern over swine flu, though, he said his farm is best described as closed.

"When they come out and say it’s swine flu, they’re (consumers) scared to death to buy pork,” said John Gibbs, a 15-year Tyson contract farmer from Holdenville. "It has nothing to do with pigs.”

He said even the state technician who routinely tests the farm water now calls before he stops by. Along with measures such as not allowing visitors from other farms to visit until three days have passed, the few people who do visit his farm must wear rubber boots dipped in a disinfectant.

Information and resources

News and resources dealing with flu, pneumonia and allergy issues, including more information on the swine flu investigation and a timeline of human flu pandemics.

Q&A with Llelwyn Grant, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Q: How effective is the swine flu vaccine for pigs for this combination virus, H1N1, that contains human, bird and swine elements?

A: The current vaccine for pigs may provide some protection, but it’s not 100 percent certain it will protect from this current strain. In dealing with the new strain, as far as people go, we are still at the developmental level of coming up with a new vaccine.

Q: What’s to keep swine flu from jumping from the Canadian herd to U.S. herds to U.S. residents?

A: There is always that possibility, of course, but what we encourage people to do is step up their protocol, particularly among those who deal with pig herds, to ensure that we don’t have spread.

Q&A with Jorgen Schlundt, World Health Organization:

Q: Considering the international flu outbreak, what are the chances that the Canadian herd they say has H1N1 could transfer the flu to humans?

A: Transfer from animals to humans has not been established with the new influenza A/H1N1, and from what we presently know, has not happened in the Canadian herd, either. The theory until now has been that the pigs were infected from a human, although we yet have no confirmation.

Q: Has an influenza or other disease ever been known to jump from animal to human?

A: Influenza viruses have jumped many times from especially pigs and birds to humans. They have also jumped in the other direction.


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