WASHINGTON The U.S. pork industry, battered by import bans by nearly two dozen countries worried about the H1N1 flu outbreak, could soon receive some help from the government, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
"Clearly pork producers have suffered and will continue to do so until we get this turned around," Vilsack told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. "We are looking at ways we can be of assistance or help," he said.
Vilsack did not go into details on what type of aid the industry might receive or when it would occur.
In a letter to the USDA earlier this week, the National Pork Producers Council said low prices have compounded a slump in the pork industry. It suggested USDA buy $50 million in pork products for donation to food pantries and hunger relief to bolster hog prices.
Fears about the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, initially prompted several countries to ban pork from places reporting human cases, including the United States. The outbreak has pushed U.S. pork sales lower and sent hog prices down by 20 percent since late April.
Currently, 22 countries have full or partial bans on U.S. pork, including two of the biggest markets, Russia and China, according to USDA. Together, Russia and China imported just under $700 million worth of U.S. pork products, accounting for about 15 percent of the $4.7 billion in pork exported by the United States in 2008, Vilsack told lawmakers.
"These are just being used as trade barriers for our products, pure and simple," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback. "It's already a difficult marketplace for our producers."
Vilsack said the United States is beginning to have some success in getting countries to reverse or halt initial plans to implement a ban, but said more work needs to be done.
"We will continue to focus our efforts on reopening these markets," said Vilsack.
U.S. and global health officials have stressed that the swine flu cannot be transmitted through pork and is not a food safety issue for those consuming the product. Vilsack and others have said banning pork products would not help protect consumers.
The H1N1 virus, which has killed a woman and a child in the United States, has reached 24 countries, infecting more than 2,000 people.
(Reporting by Christopher Doering; Editing by John Picinich)