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Flu virus unnecessary detriment to pork exports

In the last 150 years, the United States has become a dominant player in international agricultural trade because we have been blessed with abundant agricultural resources and talented, hard-working farmers and ranchers who produce more food than our 300 million people can consume.

Whereas America has about 4 percent of the world's population, we produce 42 percent of the world's corn, 33 percent of the world's soybeans and 9 percent of the world's wheat. As U.S. agricultural productivity has grown much faster than our population, exports have become a key to the success of American agriculture.

On the whole, international trade has had tremendous benefits for American agriculture in the form of growing markets, stronger demand and higher prices. However, under some circumstances some of these relationships don't work as well as they could.

Specifically, when there are economic problems in foreign markets or when there are political disruptions to trade, American farmers are among the first to feel the pinch.

I've been thinking about this aspect of exports lately as the H1N1 influenza pandemic has disrupted pork markets. I have seen economic reports indicating that domestic pork consumption has not dropped as much as many had feared in the wake of the mislabeled "swine flu" outbreak.

Instead, American consumers have kept eating bacon, ham and brats at fairly steady rates. The real problem has been in the export markets, and with certain countries that have blocked U.S. pork shipments. These countries have tried to justify their actions on the flimsy excuse of safety concerns related to H1N1.

It's frustrating to see mutually beneficial agricultural trade disrupted for any reason, but it's especially irritating when the reasons given for that disruption don't bear up to scrutiny. After all, H1N1 is not a food safety issue. In the first case, the virus is not known to be present in U.S. swine herds. Second, influenza viruses are not known to exist in swine muscle meat. Third, sick animals are withheld from the food supply. And on top of all that, proper handling and cooking of any meat product destroys microorganisms that might be present.

So why are we seeing these trade disruptions when officials in these countries know the above facts? The general assumption across much of the industry is that these countries are simply taking protectionist actions to shelter their domestic pork sectors and perhaps give themselves some leverage in future negotiations.

This kind of gamesmanship is tiresome. That's why Governor Pawlenty and I are urging USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and others at the federal level to engage our trade partners on this issue and put a stop to the use of bogus disease concerns as justification for old-fashioned protectionism.

Today the concern may involve H1N1 and pork producers, but it could easily be a different disease and a different commodity next time. Our farmers are working hard to provide good quality food to the world, and it's time for some stronger global trade rules that reduce the chances of them being used as pawns in geopolitical games.

(Gene Hugoson is the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.)