Innisfail-area hog producer Jim Smith has a very bad feeling about his industry’s future on a day when six new human cases of the H1N1 flu virus were announced in Alberta.
“It’s going to be devastating. It’s the BSE,” said Smith on Monday, in a reference to the disease that shut U.S. borders to Alberta beef and cost the industry billions beginning in May 2003.
“We’ve already lost $10 to $12 per hog. “If you market 6,000, that’s $60,000.”
That would be a hard blow for producers in an industry that has been operating on razor-thin profit margins, at best, in recent years.
“For the last couple of years, (margins) have been below narrow. They’ve been negative.
“Now this is a whammy. We were just starting to revive,” said the farmer, who has been in the hog business for more than 30 years and owns Willow Lanes Farms, southwest of Innisfail.
Smith hopes for the best, but is not overly optimistic that pork producers will be spared a major hit.
“We’ll see what happens in the next couple of days,” he said. “It doesn’t sound good.”
Smith said the problem won’t be at home, but in export markets where more than half of Alberta’s pork is destined.
“I don’t think it’s a problem with consumers in Canada. We’re fairly educated. I think our export markets are going to be the key.”
On the weekend, China announced a ban on Alberta pork products, after about 220 pigs from a herd of 2,200 on a farm somewhere between Edmonton and Calgary began showing signs of H1N1 flu virus, on April 24. Philippines, Singapore and at least eight other countries have bans that include all Canadian pork and live pigs.
“It’s kind of hard to stay positive,” said Smith.
Alberta Pork executive director Paul Hodgman understands the fears of producers like Smith, but warns against comparisons with BSE.
“We need to be really clear the disease is much different than BSE.”
“Influenza is something we get from time to time in our swine herds. I mean birds get it, humans get, and it’s not the same type of disease and doesn’t have the same problems associated with it that BSE does.”
The science, he said, “sometimes gets masked in the hysteria” but the bottom line is that there is no risk of swine flu going into pork products.
Hodgman said the risk for producers is the impact on export markets, which account for 60 per cent of pork produced.
“This is a huge economic situation for Canada. There’s about $2.7 billion worth of product that went out in 2008.
“We’re talking serious money here.
“As any country shuts their border ,that’s one less place we can send our product to.”
Prices, which already have taken a hit, could take a further pummelling.
The industry is not sitting back. On Wednesday, industry representatives will serve up pork to federal politicians and they hope Prime Minister Stephen Harper is available for the chow-down.
“We’re just going to try to fight this the best we can on all the fronts,” he said.
Canada Pork International, which represents producers and traders, is working with the departments of Foreign Affairs and International Trade to keep borders open. Canada’s Agriculture Minister and his U.S. counterpart have already assured the industry the border will remain open.
Canada’s other big customers, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia and Mexico, have also not changed their stance.
There has been other good news. Despite the outbreak, Canadians remain confident in the food they are buying.
“Pork sales have continued at the retail level quite good,” he said. “We did some tracking on that. They seem to be good.
“I don’t think we lost consumer confidence.”
“The problem is if we don’t export we don’t have enough people in the country to eat ourselves out of the problem.”