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SASKATOON, Saskatchewan (Reuters) - Pork processors may be reluctant to buy pigs that have recovered from the H1N1 flu, requiring the government to compensate the farmer who owns the first herd confirmed to be infected with the virus, a Canadian food safety official said on Friday.
That "troubling" scenario could undermine the emphasis from the World Health Organization as well as Canadian food safety officials that pork is safe to eat, Dr. Jim Clark, manager of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's disease control unit, said in an interview with Reuters.
"From the CFIA's perspective, there's no reason the food processors shouldn't be able to (process the pigs).
"(Reluctance) is based on perception, and I understand the reaction in terms of they're concerned about the impact on their business. But at the same time it would be messaging in the opposite direction to what everyone is saying to this point (about pork safety)."
The CFIA announced last Saturday it had quarantined a 2,200-hog farm in the western province of Alberta. The animals apparently caught the H1N1 virus, also referred to as swine flu, from a worker on the farm who had been to Mexico.
Health officials in Canada and with the WHO have stressed that, given normal sanitary and health precautions, the virus can not be spread by eating pork.
But the recovered pigs will not be worth processing if doing so harms Canada's international reputation, said Florian Possberg, a director of the industry's export promotion agency, Canada Pork International.
Processors who export are rightfully wary of buying pigs recovered from a flu outbreak that may or may not become a pandemic, he said.
"We have to be sensitive about what our customers' questions are around the globe," said Possberg, a hog farmer in the western province of Saskatchewan.
"Salesmanship being what it is, it's easy for our competition to question our food safety around the pigs from Alberta found with the virus. From a business point of view, it doesn't make any sense for a company to buy 100 (recovered) pigs a week to jeopardize the sales from 40,000 or 60,000 per week."
The recovering hogs should stay out of the food supply for at least a month as the scale of the H1N1 outbreak becomes more clear, with the question of processing or disposing of them revisited later, Possberg said.
More than half of Canadian pork sells for export. Domestic consumers haven't shown much concern about eating pork, Possberg added.
If the farmer can't sell the pigs, the Canadian or Alberta governments may need to offer compensation, Clark said.
In the past, processors have been reluctant to buy animals fully recovered from tuberculosis, he said, adding that he has not heard directly from processors that they may not buy pigs that have recovered from H1N1 flu.
The CFIA intends to allow the pigs into the human food supply if tests show they have fully recovered, Clark said. The quarantine on the farm will remain in place for at least two more weeks.
Editing by Rob Wilson