WHO Official Creates Confusion, Not Clarity, on H1N1 Situation

May 6, 2009 07:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Situation reveals mixed messages H1N1

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Those in ag circles today are confused over the exact stance of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the consumption of pork relative to the H1N1 flu virus. The WHO has insisted, along with other organizations like the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), that eating pork is safe. That was a consistent message among all three of these agencies.... until the past 24 hours.

What's leading to confusion today is a story quoting a WHO official who signaled that pork from animals that have H1N1 should not be allowed into the food supply.

Jorgen Schlundt, director of the World Health Organization's Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, was quoted by Reuters as saying, "Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead should not be processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances."

Further, the report said Schlundt indicated it was possible for flu viruses to survive freezing but said that there was no danger from eating or handling pork provided "normal" precautions were followed. "While it is possible for influenza viruses to survive the freezing process and be present on thawed meat, there are no data available on the survival of Influenza A/H1N1 on meat nor any data on the infectious dose for people," he wrote in an email reply to questions from Reuters.

Schlundt also indicated it wasn't clear how long the virus could be in blood or meat juices of the animals that have the H1N1 virus. "The likelihood of influenza viruses to be in the blood of an infected animal depends on the specific virus. Blood (and meat-juice) from influenza H1N1-infected pigs may potentially contain virus, but at present, this has not been established," he said.

Reuters also recast its story to indicate in the lead that Schlundt signaled "that existing checks were sufficient to safeguard the food supply from the new virus strain." And they added more food-safety related information, such as the following paragraph: "While acknowledging technical questions remain about the conditions in which the virus may be present, Schlundt stressed that the WHO had not changed its basic guidance that pork is safe to eat."

This apparent double message -- that pork from animals with H1N1 should be kept out of the food supply but pork is safe to eat -- has also caught the attention of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). In the wake of the virus appearing on the world stage, NPPC has worked hard to clear up any misconceptions or errant information on the H1N1 virus situation. And this latest development has prompted action again on their part.

NPPC released the following relative to Schlundt's comments:

A story on the Reuters news wire this morning quoting a food safety official from the World Health Organization (WHO) created some confusion about the safety of consuming pork. Pork remains safe to eat. The WHO as well as U.S. food safety and public health agencies continue to stress that the current H1N1 influenza is not a food-borne illness; people cannot get the flu from eating pork.

Wednesday afternoon, Reuters issued a clarification to its earlier story, pointing out that "existing checks were sufficient to safeguard the food supply from the new [H1N1] virus strain.”

In the earlier story, Jorgen Schlundt, director of the WHO Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, told Reuters, "Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead should not be processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances.”

Schlundt is technically correct. Meat from sick or dead animals should not be consumed. What the Reuters story did not explain is that meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead never would enter the food system.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service said FSIS inspectors at packing plants inspect every pig, every carcass and every organ before determining if an animal is fit for human consumption. If a sick pig is found at the processing plant, it is not allowed into the food system.

Dr. Jennifer Greiner, NPPC director of science and technology, said additional safeguards begin on the farm. She said farmers ethically are committed to producing safe food. Sick pigs are easily noticed and would not be loaded on a truck bound for market, Greiner said. And as a practical matter, farmers also know that FSIS inspectors will reject any sick pig, and the farmer would not get paid for that animal.

Pigs, like humans, recover from the flu and return to normal, Greiner pointed out, and the meat from those animals is safe to eat.

The group has also issued the following "pork industry talking points" about the matter:

  • The United States has the safest food supply in the world.
  • The United States has measures in place that ensure the safety of the food supply, including that of pork and pork products. Animals that are ill or animals that have died by means other than commercial harvest do not enter the human food chain.
  • U.S. pork producers do not send animals presenting signs of illness to market.
  • The Federal Meat Inspection Act prevents the sale, purchase or transport of animals that are ill or meat originating from animals that are ill, or that died in a way other than by accepted commercial harvesting methods, into market chains directed toward human consumption.
  • Under the act, federal inspectors examine all animals presented at harvest plants ante-mortem and after (post-mortem) harvest. Animals that present clinical signs of illness or are considered otherwise unwholesome are separated from the food supply chain and are not harvested for human consumption. Ken Petersen, assistant administrator for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, has stated:
  • Inspectors inspect every pig, every carcass and every organ before determining if that animal is fit for human consumption. If the inspectors find a sick pig has made it to the processing plant, that pig would not be allowed into the food system.

Comments: This underscores how sensitive this issue is and how easy it is for statements by various groups and officials to add more confusion -- not clarity -- to a situation like this. What is clear is that the WHO needs to make certain that all of their officials are on the same page when it comes to talking about the H1N1 virus or any other disease issues relative to animals or products that are a part of the world food supply.

And, it also shows why there are diverging actions taken on the trade front different countries as they are likely hearing/seeing similar conflicting reports relative to the safety of pork in the wake of the H1N1 flu virus.

I believe, hopefully, the H1N1 virus issue relative to humans is now on the decline. But my fear is that the complex issue is on an upward trend for the pork industry and pork producers. The NPPC should continue its near-nanosecond responses to errant or misleading information. They are clearly finding out that crisis management is an ongoing task.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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