Industries

Smithfield gets a touch of the flu scare

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Pigs became scapegoats in the recent outbreak of the H1N1 influenza. As a result, the world wide flu scare briefly hurt fresh pork sales at Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc., the country’s largest producer of pork products.

H1N1 is commonly known as “swine flu” despite the fact it also bears DNA from human and bird viruses. The name fueled fears about pigs spreading the disease. The Egyptian government, for example, slaughtered 300,000 pigs despite the fact no cases had been reported in that country.

After the flu outbreak in April, Internet bloggers and some Mexican politicians began to suggest a connection between the initial reported case in La Gloria, Mexico, and a nearby farm run by a Smithfield joint venture, Granjas Carroll de Mexico. Mexican health officials, however, found no evidence of flu among the farm’s pigs.

Meanwhile, many U.S. consumers, confused about how the virus is spread, stopped buying fresh pork. Sales dropped dramatically in late April, with some retailers reporting double digit declines. As a result, Smithfield cut production at its slaughtering plants by 10 percent.

In a series of interviews and news releases in early May, C. Larry Pope, Smithfield’s president and CEO, stressed that the flu is not a food-borne illness and reiterated that Smithfield hogs are free of disease.

By mid-May, the slump had passed. In presentation to the BMO Capital Markets Agriculture, Protein and Fertilizer Conference in New York, Pope said fresh pork sales had started to recover. The flu scare did not affect the sale of processed meats such as hot dogs and bacon.


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