Pork still on Asia dinner tables as flu fears simmer
* Officials in Asia reassure on safety of pork products
* Russia, China import bans stoke concerns
* Soybean prices, pork company shares drop
By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL, April 27 (Reuters) - Authorities in Asia moved quickly to head off a potential consumer backlash against pork products from the spread of swine flu, a misnomer that triggered falls in soybeans and pork product company shares on Monday.
Despite the name, the new strain that has killed over 100 in Mexico is not infecting pigs and has never been seen in pigs, but perceptions of a link could discourage consumer purchases of pork. (For a FACTBOX on the strain [ID:nSP415227])
As the governments of China and Russia at the weekend rushing to impose bans on some imports, concerns were on the rise.
But across South Korea, Japan and China on Monday, retailers reported sales of pork remained steady over the weekend with consumers saying they are more worried for now about the advent of a global pandemic than getting sick by eating ham.
"I don't think I'll avoid eating pork," said Borirak Charoenkijtavee, a Thai bank employee, saying he felt no reason to panic now because swine flu still seemed a world away.
Health authorities in Asia have spread world quickly that the virus that has killed more than 100 people in Mexico is not spread from exposure to pigs or pork products. [ID:nN27484099]
They hope people in the region will take a level-headed approach to the threat posed by the virus after having battled SARS and persistent avian influenza outbreaks. [ID:nHKG362728]
"People should have no qualms about going ahead and eating pork. Swine flu is not spread through food. In any case, the swine flu virus is inactivated as soon as the meat reaches 70 Celsius (158 Fahrenheit) during cooking," said Australian Veterinary Association President Dr Mark Lawrie.
But some markets were already pricing in the worst. Chicago Board of Trade soybean futures Sc1 fell more than 4 percent as traders feared reduced livestock feed demand [GRA/]. Chinese pork producer Hunan New Wellfull (600975.SS) dived 10 percent.
While many markets fell on fears that a wider pandemic would delay economic recovery, companies that might gain from consumers eating other meats rose, with chicken product makers Halim (024660.KQ) and Maniker (027740.KS) up 15 percent.
(For more on the industry impact click: [ID:nSP427743])
Some industry officials feared it was only a matter of time before concerns spread, triggering a backlash that could cut demand for pork and livestock feed such as soybeans.
"It's too soon to see drastic changes in consumption since it's only been a day since the news broke. But it's inevitable for pork consumption to be influenced by swine flu," said an official with the Korean Swine Association who asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter for the industry.
The World Health Organisation has declared the flu a "public health emergency of international concern" that could become a pandemic, which raised worries about the impact on already struggling economies.
Spokesmen for Seiyu Ltd, the Japan unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc WMT.N., and Aeon Co Ltd (8267.T), Japan's second-biggest retailer, said there had not been any reports of a consumer backlash against pork products at their stores.
While consumers have not yet demonstrated they will stay away from pork, some governments have banned imports.
Russia on Sunday slapped rigid curbs on meat imports from North and Latin America. [ID:nLQ600185]. China, the world's largest pork consumer and producer, banned imports of live pigs and pork products from Mexico and three U.S. states.[ID:nPEK2499]
But the farm minister of Japan, which imports about half its pork products, has said he saw no need to ban imports from Mexico or the United States since they go through strict sterilisation.
In Beijing, Seoul and other parts of North Asia, which accounts for one-sixth of the global economy, reports of the outbreak had customers hesitating at meat counters.
"I know it will be safe but since the reports of swine flu are all over TV, I am a little leery about buying pork," said a housewife in Seoul shopping for her family's dinner.
(Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun and Angela Moon in Seoul, Satawasin Staporncharnhai and Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok, Risa Maeda and Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo, Jonathan Standing in Sydney and the Beijing Bureau)
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