Tyson Foods saw dip in pork sales as flu spread

CHICAGO, May 4 (Reuters) - U.S. meat producer Tyson Foods Inc TSN.N said domestic pork sales slipped as a deadly flu strain spread last week from Mexico to the United States, but the company hopes the loss of business will be temporary.

“I saw so much price pressure (on pork) throughout the week on product as this hysteria on H1N1 was evolving,” said Jim Lochner, Tyson’s senior vice president of fresh meat, said on Monday during an earnings conference call with Wall Street analysts.

The flu, once known as swine flu but now called influenza A H1N1 by the World Health Organization, is suspected of killing more than 100 people in Mexico and sickening hundreds more worldwide.

“We have seen weaker demand domestically as well over this confusion,” Lochner said.

Several countries last week banned pork and meat from selected U.S. states in reaction to the flu outbreaks. None of Tyson’s pork plants were impacted by those bans.

But the company did see a drop in pork sales to Mexico and in domestic markets as consumers shied away from pork.

“We will have to see if Mexico’s consumption of hams comes back up. That was where the major price pressure was,” said Lochner.

Mexico closed schools and many other public events last week to control the flu. Flu cases there have declined, but many businesses there remained closed on Monday.

The flu is transmitted by humans and not by hogs or pork. But hogs can get the flu from people, which appears to be the cause of a sick hog herd in Canada.

News of the sick hogs in Canada sent U.S. hog prices sharply lower on Monday at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but Tyson said it continues to buy Canadian hogs.

Tyson buys cattle and hogs for its beef and pork plants, while it raises chickens for its poultry plants.

Tyson is one of the few U.S. meat companies that still buys Canadian hogs. Other meat companies stopped buying them some time ago to better comply with new U.S. meat labeling laws.

“I don’t know if there will be a policy change, but who knows as the day and the week goes on,” Lochner said of the company buying Canadian hogs.

“That herd was quarantined and it is not an uncommon situation for pork to come down with a respiratory flu. I don’t know if there will be any policy change, who knows as the day and the week goes on.” (Editing by Andre Grenon)