Go to an industry convention, seminar or workshop, and you’re going to hear at least one well-meaning, advice-distributing speaker talk about how the industry needs to be more proactive, that it needs to be out front of issues and crises before the issues and crises are in front of the industry.
It’s meaningless advice, of course. There isn’t an industry, a company, a department, a government, an agency, a community or a person on the planet that wouldn’t like to be more proactive about just about everything there is to be proactive or reactive about. Suggesting more proactivity is like suggesting it’s a good idea to breathe.
Usually, the meat industry has little choice to react anyway, and the H1NI flu situation is a case in point. The "swine flu" crisis seemed to come out of nowhere, yet within a couple of days worry over a possible pandemic had engulfed most of the world. The pork industry was immediately forced to drop whatever it was working on to steer the worries away from rumors and concerns that eating pork made people sick with the flu. It’s going to be a while before the success of that effort can be fully measured, however. "You can point to the sun and call it the moon, but it’s still the sun," Robbie Vorhaus, a crisis-communications expert, told Advertising Age magazine in late April. "Renaming it isn’t the issue; it’s helping people understand where it’s coming from. They’re reacting out of fear, and that’s not a good basis for communications."
But could the industry have been proactive with regard to swine flu? On the surface it’s difficult to see how. The crisis emerged suddenly and without warning. Its immediate consequences were medical. The U.S. government’s point agency in the situation has been the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not an organization the pork industry typically has much to do with.
The Global Viral Forecasting Initiative is an organization that for 10 years has been focused on preventing global pandemics. It is particularly concerned about human-animal interactions and disease transmissions. "While much remains unknown about how pandemics are born, we are familiar with the kinds of microbes — like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), influenza and H.I.V. — that present a risk of widespread disease. We know that they usually emerge from animals and most often in specific locations around the world, places like the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia," wrote GVFI’s director, Dr. Nathan Wolfe, in the New York Times at the end of April. "By monitoring people who are exposed to animals in such viral hotspots, we can capture viruses at the very moment they enter human populations, and thus develop the ability to predict and perhaps even prevent pandemics." According to Dr. Wolfe, who discovered the first evidence of natural transmission of retroviruses from nonhuman primates to humans and who is a visiting professor of human biology at Stanford University, H1N1 could likely have been detected and contained well before it spread "if we had been paying closer attention to the human-animal interactions that enable new viruses to emerge."
In addition to the CDC and GVFI, groups as diverse as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Defense, the World Health Organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Wildlife Trust are working on pandemic prevention. Dr. Wolfe’s group has established virus monitoring stations in China, Laos, Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to collect data that helps identify a virus’s genetic and immunological signatures and other biological information to create diagnostic tests, vaccines and treatments, so that when a disease appears, it is possible to respond as quickly as possible. "Had similar monitoring systems been in place at farms in Mexico, where the current swine flu outbreak is assumed to have emerged, perhaps we would have been able to identify the movement of the virus at or near the point where it entered humans," wrote Dr. Wolfe. "Such information could have significantly speeded up our response."
The names of livestock organizations, including the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, need to be on the list of groups participating in this effort. Animal-to-human transmission of dangerous viruses isn’t some anti-meat group’s agenda; it’s a scientific fact. Yet the full dimensions and ramifications of this kind of disease transmission are still barely understood. As Dr. Wolfe wrote, "Our current global public health strategies are reminiscent of cardiology in the 1950s — when doctors focused solely on responding to heart attacks and ignored the whole idea of prevention. We needn’t have been so surprised by the swine flu… and we must make sure that we are not caught off guard by the epidemics that will certainly follow it."
Making sure "that we are not caught off guard" again is a proactive effort the meat industry can certainly make, and should. Perhaps it’s not as sexy of a challenge as figuring out how to sell another two or three ounces of meat per capita per year, but it’s the kind of effort that could very well save the industry’s reputation, and thus its business, the next time a worrisome disease comes along bearing a meat livestock animal’s name.