SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Canada said on Monday it will pursue World Trade Organization action against China if it maintains its ban on pork and hogs from the province of Alberta.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced Saturday it had found the H1N1 flu virus in a swine herd in the western province of Alberta, prompting the ban by China.
"China is operating outside of sound science ... should they continue on, of course, there is a WTO challenge which we would not hesitate to enact," Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz told Parliament on Monday.
Since the discovery of the new H1N1 flu strain in Mexico, and its subsequent spread to 20 countries worldwide, Canadian pork exports have dropped an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent, according to Canada Pork International, the industry's export promotion agency.
China's ban on Alberta pork and hogs is not by itself causing a major impact on pork exports since Alberta is not a big supplier to China, said Jacques Pomerleau, the agency's executive director, but it serves to underscore the outbreak's impact on the industry.
Four other countries --- El Salvador, Honduras, Ukraine and Philippines --- have banned Canadian pork since the flu outbreak, even though the virus is not food-borne. Pomerleau said some countries without formal bans have also been hesitant to accept Canadian pork.
All 2,200 hogs on a farm in central Alberta are under quarantine after contracting the flu from a worker who had been to Mexico. Biosecurity measures are in place to limit further human contact with the pigs.
The hogs infected with the H1N1 flu virus will enter the human food supply if they fully recover during their 10-day quarantine, said Alberta's agriculture minister.
At the end of the quarantine period, the CFIA will recheck the pigs. If there are no traces of flu, they will be shipped for slaughter, where there are further checks at packing plants, Alberta's agriculture minister, George Groeneveld, said in an interview with Reuters.
"I think (consumers) should have a lot of confidence," said Groeneveld, who raises cattle, adding that flu in general is a common sickness for hogs. "Maybe it's not H1N1, but they always get flu, it's such a common thing."
If hogs show any sign of fever or flu at the slaughterhouse they're culled, he said. "They don't go to the food chain, they don't go to the pet food chain, they're rendered."
The CFIA has said food safety is not affected by the detection of the virus in the Alberta hogs and that Canadian pork is safe to eat.
"I have a lot of confidence in the system," said Groeneveld.
It's "not completely unusual" for humans to infect pigs with flu, Andre Corriveau, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, told a press conference.
"But the industry itself is very well structured to limit the number of people who go into barns ... Very good precautions are taken to minimize the risk in this regard."
Canada exported 1.1 million tonnes of pork last year, accounting for more than half of its production.
Reporting by Rod Nickel, David Ljunggren and Jeff Jones; editing by Rob Wilson