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Swine flu causing problems for Utah hog farms



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MILFORD -- The swine flu scare has put hog producers on the defensive. That's partly because of the name, but also because of what may, or may not, be a geographic coincidence. It involves the parent company of Utah's biggest hog farm and a similar farm they have in Mexico.

More than 1 million pigs a year are raised at Circle Four Farms and hauled to market outside of Utah. At a store a few miles away, folks don't seem to mind what their neighbors do for a living.

"Nah, I'm not too worried about it. As far as I know, they clean up pretty good when they go in and when they come out," said Mike Mielcarski, who works at the Minersville Texaco station.

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Circle Four's parent company, Smithfield, has an industrial-size hog farm in Mexico, and it's uncomfortably close to ‘ground zero' for the epidemic. The first documented swine flu victim was a 4-year-old boy in a Mexican village just a few miles from the Smithfield farm.

Smithfield says routine testing of its pigs has not detected the virus, and the Mexican government backs up that claim.

At the start of Wednesday morning trading, a financial analyst downgraded Smithfield's stock because of the controversy, but Wall Street didn't agree. The stock price held up well through the day.

At the Utah hog farm, biological control is part of the daily rhythm. Hog barns are widely spaced and employees shower and change clothes going in and again when coming out.

There is an issue that could be a factor in future pandemics: a national shortage of large-animal veterinarians. The company acknowledged to KSL News that Circle Four has only one vet on staff, responsible for up to 750,000 animals and for monitoring any diseases.

In a recent report, the American Veterinary Medical Association said: "While our nation's food supply is one of the safest in the world, it is at risk because fewer veterinary school graduates are pursuing a career in food-animal veterinary medicine."

Still, Smithfield says routine testing at all its facilities has not shown any flu virus. Matt Burnette used to work at Circle Four and thinks it's very safe.

"I think so. I think they're very concerned about biosecurity. It's very important to them," Burnette said. "It just works both ways, really. They want to keep their pigs just as safe as we want to keep ourselves."

Just to be clear, the World Health Organization says there is no evidence the swine flu virus has infected hogs. And you can eat pork; the illness isn't transmitted that way. However, the WHO did refuse the pork industry demand to change the name. It's still, officially, the swine flu.

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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John Hollenhorst

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