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Commentary: State prepared for outbreak, pork unaffected

The H1N1 novel influenza virus that recently emerged from Mexico is the topic of much speculation. How easily can it spread? How dangerous is it? How can we protect ourselves and our communities from it?

No matter what course the outbreak takes, it is already a life-altering tragedy for those who have lost loved ones. I know all Minnesotans join me in expressing sympathy and support to those victims.

And while human health and well-being are obviously the main concerns at a time like this, experts have long warned us that a major influenza outbreak could have harmful economic consequences as well. We saw that in the early days of the H1N1 outbreak, as the misleading "swine" label given to the virus impacted pork prices and grain markets. I remain hopeful that this impact will be short-lived, but farm families already have felt the unpleasant effects.

It's natural to see some confusion and even misdirected concerns when a new health issue emerges this quickly. However, what I find more troubling are the attempts by a few groups to turn this legitimate human health concern into a tool for advancing an agenda opposing pork production. The message from government authorities at this point is clear: pork is safe to eat.

I believe the best approach at a time like this is to avoid speculation and instead focus on the facts. To set the record straight, no incidents of this H1N1 novel influenza virus had been detected in swine as of April 29. Modern livestock facilities typically have strict bio-security measures in place to protect animals from getting sick or spreading disease. The H1N1 novel influenza virus, as it is properly known, is a human respiratory disease and not a food safety issue.

The best advice for citizens at this point is to follow common-sense recommendations related to disease prevention. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, these include:

-- Washing your hands often to protect yourself from germs.

-- Covering your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.

-- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

-- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, as germs can enter the body that way.

-- Staying at home if you are feeling ill, so you don't expose others.

-- Keeping healthy by getting plenty of sleep, staying active, managing stress and eating nutritious food.

Time will tell how significant a threat this H1N1 virus proves to be, but what I can say with certainty is that we are fortunate in Minnesota to have some of the very best public health experts working hard to keep us safe.

For more information, check out the Web site of the Minnesota Department of Health at

Gene Hugoson is commissioner of agriculture for the state of Minnesota.