Animal foods like beef, chicken and pork meat are consumed world over by more than 70% of the population and their supply chain has an important bearing on the safety of the marketed products derived from them. As they are rich sources of protein, fat and other nutrients, mankind seems to be over dependent on them as a source of healthy food. During the last hundred years, production technology for raising these animals has undergone revolutionary changes, with safety upper most in the minds of the industry. Beef consumption is a taboo for certain population while pork products are shunned by another group due to religious sentiments. Chicken meat how ever is universally liked and consumed practically in all regions of the world.
Raising of beef cattle in large farms with tightly controlled living conditions and designer feed application, more or less controls the end quality of the product with uncompromising safety. Same is true with pigs and chickens by the organized meat industry. Only in developing countries one can come across scattered rural settings where meat animals are raised at the house hold level with each having a few animals. How ever organized poultry farms have become conspicuous now in many developing countries with large farms with birds as high as 100000 in a single farm becoming common. Same is true with pig farms though they are still very small by international standards.
The animal food industry had to face serious challenges ever since mad cow disease was reported first in UK and then in USA and even to day American beef is banned in some countries due to fear of the disease which was not affecting human beings in any significant way. Same is true with bird flu or avian flu which became a serious threat during the last two years necessitating culling of millions of birds in several producing countries across the world. Here again the avian flu virus, being an animal virus could not cross the animal-human barrier and did not cause any damage in human beings. Controlling the flu was necessary to prevent total collapse of the poultry industry rather than protecting human life.The most recent Swine Flu originating from Mexico is reported to have already killed more than two dozen people there and caused a couple of deaths in USA besides making hundreds of people sick in 24 countries though not much is known about the virus that is responsible for the episode.
Influenza A/H1N1 Virus which is being described as a combination of Avian, Swine and Human Influenza Virus is responsible for the new epidemic and since it has spread to more than two regions, WHO was forced to raise the alert level to 5 in their scale of 6, indicating the seriousness of this infection to become pandemic. Any Influenza pandemic occurs when a new Virus appears against which human population has no immunity and H1N1 Swine Flu virus is indeed a new strain having pandemic potential. A pandemic can cause up to 7.4 million deaths world-wide. Since 1900 world has seen 3 pandemic episodes which include Spanish Flu of 1918-19 when 40% of world population became ill killing about 40 million people. The 1957 Asian Flu caused by H2N2 Virus resulted in 2 million deaths while the 1968 Hongkong Flu accounted for 33,800 deaths. In 1976 a pandemic was avoided because of massive vaccination efforts and in 1997 and 1999 Avian Flu was promptly controlled with minimum death of only 6 people. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 also was effectively controlled but the world realized that Virus could jump the "animal to human" barrier that has serious repercussions. Fortunately these Virus strains did not undergo sufficient mutation to sustain "human to human" infection on any significant scale.
While any Virus epidemic is a serious health concern to all countries in the world because of the ease with which it can spread across national frontiers with millions of people traveling every day, what is disturbing is the illogical knee-jerk reaction by some countries in banning the meat products from countries where the Virus originated. It took several years and billions of dollars of losses to put the beef industry back after the mad cow disease. Same is true with Avian Flu also when millions of birds had to be culled and many countries slapped ban on import of chicken meat from the affected regions. Now comes the so called Swine Flu and same logic is being invoked to ban import of of pork from Mexico and USA by countries like China, Indonesia and a few others in spite of the fact that processed meat, having undergone thermal processing adequate enough to destroy all living organisms including Virus, cannot be a source of infection. With billions of dollars of investment, any industry will feel the heat when irrational considerations affect their business and can even be considered as a disguised "Technical Barrier to Trade" (TBT) which calls for immediate intervention by WTO in the interest of a seamless global trade.
Cow, Chicken and Pig seem to be sharing the common concern that their utility to mankind is severely affected, for no fault of theirs, by the virus epidemic, vising them periodically in spite of the best attention bestowed on them by their benefactors!