Ever heard of the H1N1 virus? It’s the virus popularly referred to as swine flu — until the U.S. pork industry got involved.
The industry, fearing that uninformed consumers will avoid buying pork because they mistakenly assume the infection can be traced back to meat, has been lobbying to change the virus’ name, and its effort seems to be paying off with increased use of a new, if somewhat clumsy, moniker.
“It never should have been called swine flu,” said Dave Warner, director-communications, National Pork Producers Council. The sickness, named after its point of origin, is airborne and contracted by human-to-human contact. But some consumers hear the name and think they could get sick from eating pork, and it’s a real headache for the pork industry, which has seen other industries take hits from consumer confusion. For instance, the recent peanut recall affected sales of peanut butter, which was safe.
Mr. Warner said government officials are making an effort to refer to the swine influenza virus as the H1N1 virus, which is the strain’s more forgettable, scientific name. Cindy Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, noted that President Barack Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have referred to the virus as H1N1.
Ms. Cunningham said her agency is working to help consumers understand that pork is safe to eat, “and that it is not a swine virus; this is human-to-human transmission.”
‘Reacting out of fear’
But it could prove a pretty tricky rebrand. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are still referring to the virus as swine influenza. “You can point to the sun and call it the moon, but it’s still the sun,” said Robbie Vorhaus, a crisis-communications expert. “Renaming it isn’t the issue; it’s helping people understand where it’s coming from. They’re reacting out of fear, and that’s not a good basis for communications.”
It’s clear the misconception spreads far and wide. Mr. Warner said some countries, including Russia and China, have restricted pork imports from the U.S. Such embargoes are unlikely to have real teeth, as the countries have restricted imports only from states where cases have been confirmed. The nation’s top pork-producing states — Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina — remain unaffected by the restrictions.
It’s too soon to tell how much the misinformation is affecting sales at home. But Mr. Warner said his agency has a survey in the field to determine how much pork sales have suffered in the early days of the outbreak.