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You really can't catch H1N1 flu by eating pork

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You can't catch the H1N1 virus, sometimes referred to as "swine flu," by eating pork.

Repeat: You can't catch the H1N1 virus by eating pork.

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Maybe if that fact is repeated enough, people will actually get it. It's a travesty that the pork industry continues to take a hit because of the misconceptions about the flu.

This H1N1 virus, in fact, does not even come from pigs. It is a respiratory illness, not a food-borne illness, and is a combination of avian influenza, human influenza and swine influenza. (Early tests of the virus detected only the swine influenza portion.)

Yes, the media played a role in all this by initially referring to the virus by the name it was commonly referred to, swine flu, but coverage since then has routinely called the virus H1N1 and has repeatedly emphasized there is no connection between eating pork and getting the flu.

Yet, the unfounded fears linger.

Pork producers in Minnesota are reporting that they can't sell their hogs for what it costs to raise them, because of high feed costs and a decline in consumer demand -- driven by unjustified fears over the flu.

The H1N1 hit for Minnesota producers is expected to amount to $130 million through October. In recent news stories, Brian Buhr, head of the University of Minnesota's Applied Economics Department, offered a glum assessment of the pork producers' situation: "They are in as bad a trouble as they have been in."

If you think this is just a problem for pork producers, think again. The pork industry is a key player in the state's economy, supporting 55,000 jobs and pumping out $3.9 billion annually. Minnesota trails only Iowa in hog production and sells 15 million hogs a year. The 7th District, which includes Douglas (and Becker) County, is the ninth largest hog producing region in the nation.

The state's pork production could fall by up to 1 million hogs, according to the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. If that happens, 300 farm jobs and 950 off-farm jobs will be lost.

Earlier this month, the pork industry received some much-deserved help. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would purchase $30 million worth of surplus pork. That brings the federal government's pork purchases this fiscal year to about $150 million, or $100 million more than last year.

More can be done, however. The National Pork Producers Council has asked the USDA to lift the $300 spending cap on pork products for government food programs and to spend at least an additional $150 million on pork products during fiscal year 2009. The pork industry state governors and legislators are also pressuring the federal government to urge overseas markets to start buying U.S. pork again.

A report from the USDA last week should also help allay unfounded fears: Not a single pig in the U.S. has come down with swine flu. And, once again, even if a pig gets sick from H1N1 -- as herds have in Australia, Argentina and Canada -- it would not pose a health threat to consumers, according to health experts.

So go ahead, take advantage of the low pork prices, support Minnesota's pork producers and stock up on pork products. It's perfectly safe.

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