“Rule one,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told The New York Times last November, is “never allow a crisis to go to waste.” But despite some accusations of fear-mongering, the White House clearly seems to understand that not every crisis should be exploited. In response to the growing panic over a new strain of swine influenza A (H1N1) discovered last week in Mexico, President Obama assured Americans today that the H1N1 virus is “not a cause for alarm.” Sadly, not everyone is following the Commander-in-Chief’s lead. For animal rights activists at the Humane Society of the United States, the opportunity to use “swine flu” to scare American meat-eaters was apparently too tempting to resist.
The mouthpiece for HSUS’ latest anti-meat effort is Michael Greger. Over the years, Greger has shamelessly leveraged public panic over bird flu, mad cow disease, and SARS to promote meatless eating. Now we can add so-called "swine flu" to Greger’s list.
According to HSUS, there is no question that American pork producers are to blame for the latest flu outbreak:
With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.
Sounds scary enough. But before we start quarantining every piece of ham and bacon in sight, let’s look at what other public health experts have been saying.
Dr. Anne Schuchat dispelled pork contamination rumors at the first Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) press briefing on Thursday:
You know, when you hear the word swine influenza you think about swine and many people wonder can you get this from eating pork? The answer is no you can’t get swine flu from eating pork or from eating pork products. So that’s not something that you need to worry about.
The CDC quickly reiterated Schuchat’s point in a Q&A on its website:
Can I get swine influenza from eating or preparing pork?
No. Swine influenza viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack concurred in a statement on behalf of the Department of Agriculture yesterday:
According to scientists at USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, swine flu viruses are not transmitted by food so you cannot get swine flu from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork or pork products is safe. Cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160°F kills all viruses and other foodborne pathogens.
The World Health Organization also joined the chorus:
Is it safe to eat pork and pork products?
Yes. Swine influenza has not been shown to be transmissible to people through eating properly handled and prepared pork (pig meat) or other products derived from pigs.
Finally, President Obama assured Americans this morning that the new virus strain is no cause for alarm.
So if it’s impossible to contract swine flu from eating or handling cooked pork, why is it called “swine flu? in the first place” The World Organization for Animal Health in Paris (the "OIE," in its French acronym) has an interesting answer: It shouldn’t be.
The flu virus spreading around the world should not be called "swine flu" as it also contains avian and human components and no pig was found ill with the disease so far, the World Animal Health body said on Monday.
A more logical name for it would be "North-American influenza"
Renaming the virus makes sense to us, but don’t expect to hear much logic from HSUS. To the animal rights giant, the tragic but minimal death toll in Mexico is an opportunity to stoke fears of animal agriculture — and avoid letting a precious crisis go to waste.
Michael Greger’s anti-pork panic is just the latest example of why dietary zealots shouldn’t be mistaken for reliable health experts. The modern farming practices that HSUS condemns as a source of the swine flu virus are probably humans’ best firewall against the disease. Modern farming keeps animals in controlled environments, where they are far less susceptible to contagion and pandemics. “Free-range” pork, on the other hand, is more likely to spread diseases through communal contact and uncontrolled contact with people. (Sound familiar?)