With the flu season just hitting in the Northern Hemisphere, the likely severity of H1N1 and its impact on the hog industry was a hot topic at the 2009 Allen D. Leman Swine Conference.

The "pretty good news" thus far is that with the flu season just ending in the Southern Hemisphere, the percentage of people contracting flues "is pretty similar to an average year,” says Dr. Peter Davies of the University of Minnesota

However, the pork industry has been hit hard by the disease.

Producers in the red

While U.S. pork consumption has been affected little by the outbreak of H1N1 this spring in Mexico, the shutdown of key export markets such as China and Russia hit producers hard.

It’s not the only reason why producers in Australia, Canada, and Mexican, Argentina, the United States, and other countries continued to lose money, with other key factors being the global recession and the fact that supply needs to be brought into line with demand on a global scale. But H1N1 has played an important role in continuing losses of late that have been $25 to $30 per pig for the last 24 months, according to a U.S. analysis.

Tim Loula, a partner at the St. Peter, Minn., UDA Swine Veterinary Center, said he expects little profitability for the next 18 months. "I haven't seen it this bad in 32 years of practice," he said, adding that there are no good answers on how producers can start turning a profit.

That’s not the case worldwide, however. United Kingdom producers were profitable as of late September, a consultant said over lunch at the meeting.

“Origin is unknown”

Dr. Kristien Van Reeth, a global expert on influenza, and on the faculty of Ghent University in Belgium, said the new and novel form of H1N1's "origin is unknown," and while pigs are frequently a platform for a reassortment of viruses, there is no proof that this occurred with this novel form.

"There is no evidence for a role of pigs in spreading the novel H1N1 in humans," she said. “The disease seems to be hitting populations younger than 25 harder that those older, leading her to suspect that older populations have immunity from previous flu outbreaks.”

Van Reeth continued that the accusation made by some that the cause of H1N1 is due to a large and confined hog production system is nothing more than "anti-agriculture propaganda." Old-fashioned swine operations are more vulnerable to influenzas than large-scale operations, she said.

Pandemic?

One of the problems for the public is that H1N1 was called a pandemic, but few people know what the word actually means.

"A pandemic only means worldwide occurrence," said Dr. Marie Gramer of the University of Minnesota. She added that it may not be the case that influenza is any worse in the 21st century, "but we are looking more for it. The more you look, the more you find." On June 11, H1N1 was called a pandemic. "We are not post peak yet," she said.” It is truly a unique virus."

Dr. Laura Bautista, recipient of the “2009 Allen D. Leman Science in Practice Award,” said that unfortunately, the outbreak of H1N1 was poorly managed, erroneously named, “and it had a terrible impact on the swine industry.

All through May, June and July, the swine industry (in Mexico) really suffered. We had a really bad crisis with the price of corn and the circovirus crisis, so we were just starting to recover when the wrongly named swine flu came.

Lost 20% of inventory

“I don’t think I can tell you that (the industry) has recovered,” she said. “We lost about 20% of our inventory.” Some producers are thinking of closing their farms “and thinking of other things to do, which is very sad because some of these producers have been in swine production for a long time.”

Bautista sees light at the end of the tunnel, however. “Now I can tell it is not as bad as it was. We can take our pigs to market,” consumption is bouncing back.

“I think that producers are starting to be more optimistic,” Bautista continued. “It will take another three to four months before our producers can smile again, but we will eventually come out. I know, I’ve been with them for 25 years.”

The swine industry has helped itself, she continues, with serious promotions. “We did a lot of presentations, we did barbeques, and we invited people. And yes, consumption is up and we have gained a little bit of the market.”