The old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had a fatal flaw. It’s task was both to promote and to regulate nuclear power. That sounds like a bad idea, right? Conflict of interest? But in fact there are a number of government agencies that are in the same awkward position. One of them is the US Department of Agriculture, now run by Obama appointee and former ag state (Iowa) Governor, Tom Vilsack. I’ll say one thing for Vilsack. He takes his responsibilities seriously. At least the promoting and protecting the ag industry part. Vilsack has had a mixed record on matters of importance to progressives. He was a timid but definite opponent of the Iraq War and had a fairly good record on energy (except for the inevitable ethanol bias of corn producing states). But generally, Big Agribusiness liked him. For some of the same reasons, organic food advocates didn’t. He has a strong bias for industrial farming and livestock operations and the promotion of genetically modified food and seeds developed by the big agribusiness and biotech players. Now comes swine flu. Vilsack is on a crusade to expunge swine flu from all media reports and government agency use. Why? He’s upfront about it. Because it hurts the pork producers:
Hog markets are depressed. Farmers struggle to put food on the table. Hard times are seeping into the rural economy, hurting owners of grocery and hardware stores.
Blame the media, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, unleashing several lengthy rants about the evils of oversimplification during a 25-minute teleconference with reporters on Thursday.
Vilsack scolded the media for continuing to call the new strain of pandemic H1N1 flu by its more common name: swine flu.
?It is not swine flu,? Vilsack thundered. ?Every time that is said, consumers get confused. Schools that are considering purchases for school lunch and school breakfast programs get confused, get worried.?
Vilsack implied that pork consumption is down because people worry they can catch swine flu ? whoops, H1N1 ? from eating pork. (You can?t.) Instead of stressing safety of pork, or sharing details about how the USDA plans to keep watch for the flu-that-shall-not-be-named in hogs, Vilsack dressed down reporters for harming farmers. (Roberta Rampton, Reuters blog)
Too bad, Mr. Vilsack. This virus came from swine. As far as I am concerned, “swine flu” is the most appropriate and descriptive name for it. There is no “official” scientific name, no matter what Secretary Vilsack may think. It is an influenza virus with eight genetic segments, each one of which came most recently from swine (some had earlier histories in birds and humans). It probably circulated in swine for years without being detected because the USDA doesn’t do systematic swine surveillance for a virus known to be endemic in hogs at least since the 1930s. Neither Vilsack nor anyone else knows if the virus is in US pig herds. We know pigs can pick it up from people and people are infected. We are fairly confident that at some point, probably as recently as the end of last year, the virus made the jump from pigs to humans. We don’t know when or where, although some recent analyses suggest Mexico as one of the most probable origins. By the time we discovered it infecting humans (April 2009) it had already seeded the US and the US was the main source for sending it around the world. Sealing borders doesn’t work for flu, but if any country’s borders should have been sealed, it was the US. But of course that wouldn’t have done much good and done a lot of harm. But back to pigs.
Vilsack thinks the proper scientific name for swine flu is H1N1. Not correct because that’s not specific enough. H1N1 is a subtype of influenza A virus and exists in the form of many strains, including the one that caused the 1918 pandemic (also called Spanish flu, although Spain had nothing to do with it) and the seasonal flu that has been co-circulating with the H3N2 subtype since 1977. These are all H1N1 flu as well. WHO is now using the name pandemic H1N1 2009, but CDC still calls it swine influenza. I’m with CDC on this. And I think they know a bit more than Mr. Vilsack, whose motives are to protect the pork producers.
Ostensibly the argument is that calling is swine flu confuses the public and makes them think that you can get it from eating pork. You can get it from an infected pig, but most people have no contact with infected pigs and none have been identified in the US. Anyway, almost everyone knows you’re overwhelmingly more likely to get it from a person than a pig. I know very few people who are under the misapprehension eating pork is a real danger. Instead I think the real motive is to protect the export of live pig and pork products. Pigs can be infected with this virus and no country wants their herds infected. There goes the export market:
But on Tuesday [Vilsack] and others insisted that the economic impact reaches far beyond U.S. borders, telling countries around the world that ?there is no basis for restricting imports? of American pork products.
As of Tuesday, more than 10 countries placed restrictions on imported pork products from the United States. The U.S. pork industry exports nearly $5 billion worth of products each year.
?We want to make sure that a handful of our trading partners don?t take advantage of this legitimate concern over public health and engage in behavior that could also damage the world?s economy,? U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said at Tuesday?s briefing with Napolitano and Vilsack. (Mike Levine, FoxNews.com)
Manipulating language in such a transparent way isn’t gong to do the trick anyway. It’s swine flu. I’m sorry, Secretary Pork Producer. I’m going to keep calling it swine flu. As in: swine flu, swine flu, swine flu.