As pork prices tumble, Minnesota won’t call it “swine flu”

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Minnesota’s top health officials are in close communication with the Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta about the new flu that has killed more than 100 people in Mexico. But they aren’t calling the flu by the same name. The CDC calls it “swine flu,” but Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan says the official state term is “H1N1 novel influenza.”

“We’re trying to get away from the term ‘swine flu,’” Magnan said at a press conference today with Gov. Tim Pawlenty and State Epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield.

“’Swine flu’ gives a connotation that it shouldn’t have,” Magnan said. “People wonder about eating pork. … We really want to get away from it.”

A question from the Minnesota Independent prompted another visit to the topic later in the press conference. “Swine flu” can lead people to associate the disease with eating pork, officials said, making “H1N1 novel influenza” a better description – though “it’s a mouthful.”

Also, the flu spreads from person to person, so the word “swine” might confuse that message about transmission, officials said.

State officials expect the CDC may come around to Minnesota’s terminology in the next few days.

The World Health Organization has suggested another term: “North American flu.”

A possible reason for the name change: The “swine flu” label has the nation’s pork industry squealing, as hog prices plummet in apparent worry over public misperceptions that pork is unsafe to eat. The Des Moines Register reports that the price of hogs, once as high as $80 per hundredweight, dropped from $69 per hundredweight Friday to $66 per hundredweight Monday on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and price of futures contracts for lean hogs dropped five cents per pound, to 66 cents, in the past two days.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was emphatic:

I want to reiterate the same message to our trading partners — our pork and pork products are safe. The discovery of this virus in humans is not a basis for restricting imports of commercially produced U.S. pork and pork products.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano weighed in as well, using Minnesota’s preferred term:

You should also know that you cannot get H1N1 from eating pork. Pork products are perfectly safe.

The movement away from the term “swine flu” is moving fast in an attempt to outpace the growing list of countries banning American pork.

But it’s got a ways to go: the Minnesota Department of Health’s Web site, like the University of Minnesota’s, calls it swine flu. They’re in good company. The federal government’s main Web site for citizens to get information about the outbreak still goes by the address http://www.cdc.gov/swineflu/.

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