Update: Michael Miner has a 1337 solution to the naming problem.
Today John Kass flags something I thought was sort of odd: last night, in his 100-day press conference (tell you what: next administration, I’m going to do a report on the first 95 days and scoop all y’all because I have no fear of your base-10 counting system), Obama referred, quite against the grain of the CDC and pretty much every media outlet on earth, to “swine flu” as “H1N1.” Regular Kass readers will know what’s next:
“It’s a naming problem. And an American agribusiness problem worth billions of dollars to the pork industry. H1N1 doesn’t evoke grunts and squeals and curly tails, slop and influenza.”
Which is true enough, I suspect, and Kass has some rich words from Tom Vilsak to push the thesis along. Obama’s fealty to the Midwestern farming industry, mostly expressed by his devotion to ethanol madness, is pretty well established. Not only is he from Illinois, Iowa still plays an outsized role in selecting the leader of the free world.
But this odd little nexus of nomenclature, our current near-pandemic, and the pork industry is actually pretty interesting, and there’s a bit more at stake than the hurt feelings of Big Pig.
Grist has been doing an excellent job of following the possibility, and it’s still very much just a possibility, that the mutant H1N1 strain originated in an industrial pig farm in Mexico. Tom Philpott has a good roundup on the speculation, which kicked off a hot discussion on an environmental journalists listserv, which prompted Merritt Clifton to respond with caution.
I’m from Virginia, one of the largest pork-producing states in the country, and I did my first real newspaper internship when the Raleigh News & Observer was basking in the glow of a well-deserved Pulitzer for its investigative reportage (series title: “Boss Hog”) on the industry. So, trust me: even if Big Farm gets off the hook for creating a global pandemic, it’s not like it’s still not a hugely problematic industry and the source of lots of terrible, um, shit. Hedrick Smith recently did an outstanding Frontline on the damage done to the Chesapeake Bay by the industry (among others). If you want to see a journalist almost die on camera from virulent cognitive dissonance, I can’t recommend it highly enough. So no matter what happens with Swine1N1, worth keeping in mind.
In fairness to Obama, however, swine flu nomenclature is not merely about being fair or just or not to Big Pig. If the strain in question is in fact a blend of swine, human, and avian influenza genetic material, then swine flu really isn’t a great name. The NYT‘s Keith Bradsher has a good article on the controversy.
But I’m with Kass – screw H1N1, it has no panache. Should it turn out to be a mutt of a pandemic, born of swine, human, and bird, should we go with Gorgon Flu?
Anyway, I have it on good word that this is the source: