ORONO, Maine — While pigs are being slaughtered around the world and some countries have banned imports of pork and pork products, new research indicates that ducks and humans may be more to blame for the spread of the H1N1 virus, also called swine flu, and no one should be afraid to eat pork products.
While the H1N1 strain that has spread around the world has evolved from Mexican swine, its ancestors came from waterfowl, Richard Webby, head of a World Health Organization Collaborating Center in Memphis, Tenn., which studies the ecology of influenza, announced this weekend, according to The Associated Press.
Viruses that circulate in aquatic birds are the genetic ancestors of all pandemic-causing influenza, including the 1918 Spanish flu blamed for killing 50 million people, according to Webby. He said because pigs are susceptible to both avian and mammalian strains of the flu, they become mixing vessels for human and bird flu vi-ruses.
Does this mean you must forgo that pork chop or ham steak?
Absolutely not, Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, a veterinarian at the University of Maine, advises. Although Lichtenwalner and state veterinarians have warned Maine’s pork producers to keep a close eye on their hogs’ health, they are not warning against consuming pork that has been properly handled.
Lichtenwalner has sent notices to about 40 of Maine’s pork producers and others in the industry urging them to be vigilant in reporting any flulike symptoms in their swine, their workers or family members to their veterinarian or to the state veterinarian.
But right now, she said, swine flu is not being considered an animal disease.
The mother of the swine flu was a surprising genetic event that went unnoticed except by a few scientists a little over a decade ago, Webby said this weekend. Three influenza strains from pig, bird and human combined in pigs to form two new and unusual strains.
That 1998-99 flu in pigs first hit a farm in North Carolina and eventually spread to 23 other states, according to Webby. Only 4 percent of the affected swine died, but a handful of people who were in close contact with the hogs got slightly sick when they caught this flu from pigs, but they didn’t die and didn’t spread it to others.
Webby said there have been about 10,000 generations of that virus since.
“There is some quite good evidence that avian viruses get into swine barns through the practice of using pond water to wash down the barns,” Webby said.
“Maine has a great small farm economy and our farmers are very responsible people,” Lichtenwalner said.
Lichtenwalner is advising farmers to follow normal biosecurity precautions for their farms and to review sanitation measures with their workers and families.
Simple practices, such as having good ventilation and sanitation, are even more important for families living on farms, she said.
Meanwhile, Bill Hall, acting assistant secretary of public affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “There is no evidence at this time that swine in the United States are infected with this virus strain and therefore, this is not an animal health or food safety issue.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security:
• People cannot get the hybrid influenza from eating pork or pork products. Most influenza viruses, including the swine flu virus, are not spread by food. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.
• There are no food safety issues related to the hybrid flu that has been identified.
• Preliminary investigations have determined that none of the people infected with the hybrid flu had contact with hogs.
• This virus is different from that found in pigs.
• Meat from dead or sick hogs should never be consumed.
Both the Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, and World Organization for Animal Health, or OIE, have said import bans on pigs and pork are not required to safeguard public health because the disease is not food-borne and does not pose a threat.