retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The US government has declared a public health emergency as 20 cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United States, following the revelation that there may have been as many as 103 related deaths in Mexico, raising fears that this could be what the New York Times calls a “leading edge of a global pandemic.”

Swine flu cases have been identified in New York, California, Texas, Kansas and Ohio, though there have been no reported fatalities in the US.

Many questions remain. The Times writes, “Top global flu experts struggled to predict how dangerous the new A (H1N1) swine flu strain would be as it became clear that they had too little information about Mexico’s outbreak — in particular how many cases had occurred in what is thought to be a month before the outbreak was detected, and whether the virus was mutating to be more lethal, or less.”

Meanwhile, in response to the crisis, the National Pork Board has issued a statement reassuring the public that pork products are safe to eat and that consumers cannot contract swine flu from eating pork that has been properly cooked. To this point, it is believed that swine flu is spread from person to person, and has nothing to do with contact or proximity to pigs.

However, it is believed that the crisis will have an impact on pork exports from the US, which is a $5 billion annual business.

FYI…ABC News reports that the World Health Organization defines a pandemic as meeting three criteria: “First, it must be an infection that has newly emerged. Secondly, it has to be able to cause serious illness in humans. And thirdly, it must be able to spread easily from person to person. Infections in this category can often spread beyond their continents of origin -- and potentially around the world.”

Health experts say that the best way to avoid swine flu is to wash your hands often and well. It also is recommended that people stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing…and postponing planned trips to Mexico also is recommended.

KC's View:
All the evidence to this point suggests that this is not a food borne illness…but it will contribute to the overall feeling of consumer disquiet nonetheless.

BTW … it is a little early to get an official response on this one, but I wonder what it would take for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) to cancel its Dallas-based Future Connect conference next week. For one thing, Texas is one of the states where swine flu has been detected…though in San Antonio, not Dallas. (Though as we post MNB this morning, there is a late report that there may be three cases of swine flu in Dallas, though the report is unconfirmed.)

Beyond that, though, there is a notion that we’ll all be sitting in a series of big rooms next week…and if there is an outbreak of coughing, it’s at least going to get some people wondering. (Maybe FMI could find a corporate sponsor – Smithfield Foods, perhaps? - to hand out branded surgical masks when people show up at the door…)

Obviously, I’m joking (a bit) here… but the serious point is that a week from now, this situation could look very different. It could have receded into the background, but it may look a lot worse…and the industry needs to consider the implications from every possible angle.

And when that guy next to you coughs, hold your breath.