Pork farmers look ahead after flu scare

BY ANNA LOTHSON | MAY 14, 2009 7:32 AM

As the weather heats up, the grills come out and people are ready to barbecue.

And though the pork industry took a big hit after the term “swine flu” scared some people away from the meat, prices are back on the rise, said John Lawrence, an agricultural economic professor at Iowa State University.

“The meat business is a ‘sell it or smell it’ businesses,” he said, noting he suspects the price drop resulted after retailers didn’t want to risk buying pork.

Despite national health experts emphasizing that eating the meat will not cause the illness, he said, the psychological attitudes of consumers may have played a role in the price dip.

Pork markets, which affect both the current cash and future prices — acting like the stock market — caused a drop in price from around $61 per hundred pounds of meat to a low point of roughly $50.
Lawrence said this reduced the value of an individual hog by $20.

But as of Wednesday morning, the price had jumped back to between $62 and $65.

During late April, traditionally a time for picnics and barbecues, Lawrence said prices typically see a needed boost in the market.

And while profitable conditions may have been in the works, he said farmers were able to “see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it just went out.”

Though a dip in the market is never good timing for farmers, the scare associated with pork hit at a rapid pace, Lawrence said.

The Iowa pork industry — which a 2004 state report valued at $12 billion a year — was already suffering, said Ron Birkenholz, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

“The blood bath just got worse,” he said, noting pork farmers are lucky to see the downturn was short lived.

Birkenholz said the price drop showed how little it takes to hinder an industry — in this case a name like “swine flu” meant a lot.

Last week, Gov. Chet Culver, called on China to reverse the Iowa Pork Import Ban.

Chinese officials had announced the country would no longer accept pork exports from Iowa because of concerns about the H1N1 influenza, despite officials saying there was no link to diseases.

“Now is our opportunity to remedy this situation before any more undue damage is done to the producers and processors of Iowa and the food supply for the people of China,” the governor said in his letter to China’s ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong.

Lawrence, who is also the director of the Iowa Beef Center, said a similar scenario happened when fear of mad cow disease hit, but said influenza was not a legitimate reason for pulling out of the contract.

But as prices rise, Birkenholz said pork producers may have something to look forward to again.
“We’re just happy it’s on the rebound,” he said.

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