Agriculture officials across Canada and North America rushed to the pork sector’s defense Wednesday after a warning from a World Health Organization official over the odds of survival for the novel H1N1 flu virus in pigs’ meat and blood.
WHO official Jorgen Schlundt was quoted Wednesday by the Reuters news service as warning it’s possible for flu viruses to survive the freezer and turn up intact in thawed meat, as well as in blood.
“Meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead should not be processed
or used for human consumption under any circumstances,” Schlundt, the WHO’s department director for food safety, zoonoses and foodborne diseases, said in a report by Tan Ee Lyn of Reuters in Hong Kong.
“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 said when asked about the safety of pork, respiratory secretions and blood of H1N1-infected pigs.
“The likelihood of influenza viruses to be in the blood of an infected animal depends on the specific virus,” he said. “Blood (and meat-juice) from influenza H1N1-infected pigs may potentially contain virus, but at present, this has not been established,” Schlundt said.
Generally, he recommended that people involved in activities where they could come in contact with large amounts of blood and secretions, such as in a hog slaughter plant, wear the appropriate protective equipment.
Previously, the joint line from the WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been that “influenza viruses are not known to be transmissible to people through eating processed pork or other food products derived from pigs.”
Heat treatments commonly used in cooking meat (70°C core temperature) will inactivate any viruses potentially present in raw meat products, the three agencies said in a joint statement in late April.
But at that time they also urged authorities and consumers to “ensure that meat from sick pigs or pigs found dead are not processed or used for human consumption under any circumstances.”
The new H1N1 virus which has so far killed 29 people in Mexico and two in the U.S. is being transmitted from person to person, not from pigs to people. Worldwide, over 1,900 people in 23 countries have been sickened by the virus.
In Canada, as of Wednesday afternoon, 201 people have contracted H1N1 in eight provinces, mostly in British Columbia (54), Nova Scotia (53), Ontario (49) and Alberta (30), according to the federal Public Health Agency. A hog herd in Alberta has also been confirmed to have caught the human H1N1 variant.
Not in food chain
Among those responding to Schlundt’s statements, Ontario’s Agriculture Minister Leona Dombrowsky put out a statement Wednesday saying “I want to assure you that it is safe to eat Ontario pork.
“In Ontario, sick animals and deadstock do not enter the food chain. All animals are inspected prior to slaughter to ensure they are healthy. Ontario producers continue to employ strict biosecurity measures.”
Dr. Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told the Canadian Press news agency that safeguards keep diseased pigs from making it to market, by screening animals on-farm for illnesses before they even get near a slaughterhouse.
“This doesn’t change anything in Canada,” Evans told CP. “What the WHO is saying is what we do every day, every week, every month, every year as part of our food inspection system.”
Also on Wednesday, federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz issued a joint statement with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Mexican Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas, in which they “strongly urge the international community not to use the outbreak of the H1N1 human influenza as a reason to create unnecessary trade restrictions and that decisions be made based on sound scientific information.”
H1N1 human influenza viruses are not spread by food, the three ag officials said, citing the WHO, FAO and OIE as saying the consumption of pork meat and related products do not present a health risk of contracting H1N1 human influenza.
“We would like to express our deepest sympathies for the victims of the current outbreak of H1N1 human influenza and emphasize that our governments are doing everything they can to bring the outbreak under control,” said the three officials, whose three countries together include over 1,800 of the current cases of H1N1, mostly in Mexico.
On that front, researchers at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg also announced Wednesday that in less than a week, they have completed work on decoding the genetic makeup of the H1N1 virus.
Genetic sequencing is the process of determining the order of the molecules that make up the DNA in each gene of an organism. A complete genetic blueprint provides important information for researchers studying the virus.
“This takes us a big step forward in understanding how this virus works,” said Dr. Frank Plummer, scientific director general of the National Microbiology Lab, in a release. “Our preliminary analysis does not indicate a significant difference between the virus in Mexico and the virus in Canada.”
Canada’s work on the virus has been submitted to GenBank, an international, searchable database, to allow more researchers to have access to the results and benefit from the information, the government said Wednesday.
This novel H1N1 flu virus originally was termed “swine flu” because it had characteristics of previously identified strains of swine influenza, but was later found also to have similarities to avian and human flu strains. That’s when international agencies urged that it be referred to as H1N1, not “swine flu.”
But North America’s hog industry already has been affected “dramatically” by the flu outbreak, according to livestock marketing economist Tim Petry of North Dakota State University’s extension service.
The May lean hog futures contract closed at US$69 per hundredweight (cwt) on April 24, and by May 1, the market declined to US$58.47, Petry said in an NDSU release Wednesday.