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May 5, 2009

Critics question self-inspections for flu in pigs

Kenny Brinker is on the front lines of the national drive to prevent a devastating outbreak of swine flu on U.S. hog farms. But he's not a public health worker. He's a hog farmer in central Missouri.

Twice a day, Brinker or one of his farmhands wanders a barn holding more than 5,000 pigs, looking for sneezing, coughing or panting. It's low-tech surveillance, and Brinker knows the stakes are high.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has urged countries to step up surveillance on hog farms. But in the United States, that task falls to the industry, not public health officials. Meat companies police their own farms to root out disease.

Critics question how effective this system of voluntary self-regulation can be. But Brinker is confident he and other hog farmers could spot the disease quickly.

"If you're a person who does this for a living, it just comes as second nature," he said.

The effort to detect swine flu on U.S. farms gained urgency over the weekend as Canadian officials quarantined pigs infected with swine flu by a worker returning from Mexico. If the virus infects U.S. pigs, it could spread through herds kept in crowded barns and possibly threaten people.

Some health experts fear that overworked farmhands could fail to spot a diseased pig.

"There are undoubtedly public health risks" in the current system of self-detection, said Michael Greger, a physician and director of public health and animal agriculture at the Human Society of the United States. "But unfortunately, we don't shore up the levees until there is a disaster."

Smithfield Farms Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's two biggest pork producers, say they have stepped up disease-control efforts since the swine flu outbreak, like limiting farm visitors and testing more pigs.

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