Canada says pork safe to eat despite WHO warning

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The government says pork is safe to eat despite a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the swine flu virus could survive in slaughtered pigs.

"Canadian pork is safe. There is no danger," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz insisted Wednesday after serving up pork sandwiches to MPs and government workers on Parliament Hill.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz eats a pork sandwich during a barbecue put on by the Canadian Pork Council on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Wednesday. Ritz says pork is safe to eat despite a warning from WHO. - Photo by The Canadian Press

Ottawa -

The government says pork is safe to eat despite a warning by the World Health Organization (WHO) that the swine flu virus could survive in slaughtered pigs.

"Canadian pork is safe. There is no danger," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz insisted Wednesday after serving up pork sandwiches to MPs and government workers on Parliament Hill.

Earlier in the day, a WHO official said the pig strain of the H1N1 virus may withstand freezing and persist in the thawed meat and blood of infected animals.

The warning came as Canada's swine flu caseload jumped to 201, with 36 new mild cases reported. That included 13 in Ontario, eight in B.C., six in Quebec, five in Nova Scotia, and four in Alberta.

Also Wednesday, Canadian scientists became the first to genetically sequence the virus and confirm that the same strain is spreading through Canada and Mexico - even though it has killed 42 Mexicans and been relatively mild here.

One possibility being considered is that the Mexican victims may have had underlying medical conditions that made them more susceptible to the bug.

Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's Department of Food Safety, Zoonoses and Foodborne Diseases, told Reuters it's possible for influenza viruses to survive the freezing process, and he cautioned against eating meat from sick and dead pigs infected with the swine flu.

But Dr. Brian Evans of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said that's not an issue in Canada. He said Canada has safeguards to keep diseased pigs from making it to market.

Those checks make it virtually impossible for infected pork to end up on store shelves, he said, since pigs are screened on farms for illnesses before they ever make it to the slaughterhouse.

Swine also undergo a clinical pre-assessment at slaughterhouses.

"The message that is coming out clearly from WHO today, which is standard operating practice in Canada, is the fact that you do not slaughter sick animals and you do not slaughter dead animals for human consumption," Evans said.

"This doesn't change anything in Canada. What the WHO is saying is what we do every day, every week, every month, every year as part of our food inspection system."

Bacteria such as Listeria, salmonella and E. coli all pose a greater risk than swine flu in raw pork products, said Brian Ward, an infectious disease specialist at McGill University.

"Does this add any real risk to handling or preparation of pork products? No, I don't think so at all," Ward said.

"You'd really have to have a fairly extensive, linked series of improbable events that would all have to occur - including, then, sticking your fingers in your eye without washing them."

The virus is killed by cooking meat at temperatures above 70 degrees Celsius.

There's no evidence that anyone has caught swine flu from eating pork. Still, 10 countries have banned Canadian pork products since the virus was found on an Alberta farm. China in particular banned pork from Alberta.

A joint statement Wednesday from Ritz and the agriculture secretaries of the United States and Mexico urged countries not to use the flu outbreak as a reason to create unnecessary trade restrictions and that decisions be based "on sound scientific information."

Officials announced Wednesday that researchers at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg had become the first to sequence Canadian and Mexican samples of the H1N1 virus.

And they have ruled out a mutation to explain why the Mexican cases have been much more severe than elsewhere.

Canada's cases have all been mild, with the exception of a young Alberta girl who came down with a severe case of the flu.

Frank Plummer of the National Microbiology Laboratory said scientists worked day and night to sequence the virus in less than a week.

"We're continuing our analysis, but essentially what it appears to suggest is that there's nothing at the genetic level that differentiates this virus that we've got from Mexico and those from Nova Scotia and Ontario that explains apparent differences in disease severity.

Officials have said Canada's only severe case - involving a girl in an Edmonton hospital - had more to do with underlying conditions than it did with the virus itself.

The girl, who has not been identified, is getting better and is breathing on her own. It remained unclear how the girl, whose age was not released, became infected.

Organizations: World Health Organization (WHO), Department of Food Safety, Reuters Canadian Food Inspection Agency National Microbiology Laboratory McGill University Edmonton hospital

Geographic location: Canada, Alberta, Mexico Ontario Nova Scotia Ottawa Parliament Hill Quebec China United States Winnipeg

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