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Pork producer ad blitz no instant cure for flu fears

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fears of a global flu pandemic may be subsiding but a big sector in the already battered U.S. food industry will be left reeling for months to come as a result of the scare over “swine flu.”

The H1N1 virus outbreak that spiked in Mexico in March and spread to the United States and beyond was originally dubbed “swine flu” and the impact on the pork industry was felt almost immediately.

Food safety officials have been clear that people can’t get flu from eating pork. But that’s not necessarily the perception of consumers made jittery by a string food scares that have raked America’s giant agribusiness complex in recent months.

Pork sales and prices dropped in the United States while more than a dozen countries rushed to wall off their home markets from pork from infected countries.

“Unfortunately with the association with the name originally, it cast these questions about the industry that created a lot of nervousness with people trying to figure out what the situation is,” said Neil Dierks, Chief Executive Officer, National Pork Producers Council.

“We are striving to the get the message out to everybody that it’s a safe and good, nutritious and healthy product.”

The pork lobby, part of the politically powerful farm sector, went into high gear and was instrumental in getting everyone from President Barack Obama and world scientific bodies to drop the word “swine” when describing the virus.

MEDIA BLITZ

The Pork Council, which spent years convincing America that pork was “the new white meat,” has launched a $1 million media blitz, with one full page ad in major U.S. newspapers saying: “Let’s keep pork -- and all the facts -- on the table.”

But despite a strong public relations campaign, it won’t be easy to win back consumers, said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University.

“They’re having to battle back from the perception of where this one came from, how it’s being transmitted throughout the world. And that’s a major battle,” Hart said.

The U.S. food industry has suffered colossal food safety nightmares, including last year’s salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that forced the largest food recall in U.S. history. Peanut butter sales fell 25 percent and are only now recovering.

With some 76 million Americans getting sick and 5,000 dying each year from food-borne illnesses, the industry is facing a raft of new controls from the Obama administration. U.S. consumers are quick to shun recalled products and avoid them for months after.

Some analysts say it is not surprising that consumers in the United States and around the world worry about the safety of eating pork after the H1N1 virus, despite assurances from official sources.

“With swine flu people are sort of inclined to rule against the industry because of some of these other issues they have been reading about,” said Paul Roberts, author of the book, “The End of Food.”

The industry also has been slammed by lower hog prices, with the May futures contract down more than 20 percent since late April to 54 cents a pound.

THREATENS SURVIVAL

Signs of a drop in demand for pork at grocery stores initially caused a sharp drop in shares of producers such as Smithfield Foods SFD.N and Tyson Foods TSN.N, but the stocks have recovered.

“As much as I want to see this situation go away, the damage has been done and it is not going to disappear in a week’s time,” lamented Don Norcini, an independent hog trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

The pork industry was hit last year with record feed prices, 70 percent of a producer’s costs. The flu scare now threatening the survival of some producers, said Dierks of the Pork Council.

“There are producers that are in financial stress and the industry doesn’t have an unlimited bank account to go forward. Some may make the decision to voluntarily leave the business; others may very well have an involuntary decision made by a lender to exit the business if markets don’t recover.”

Additional reporting by Jerry Bieszk in Chicago and Christopher Doering in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio

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