A continued outbreak of a deadly hog disease now has pork providers changing some of their handling behaviors.
Last April, Iowa was the first state followed by a slew of others in the U.S. that dealt with the outbreak of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, or PEDV. The virus has a 100 percent mortality rate in piglets four weeks old and younger. The rise of PEDV has begun again as the cold winter has continued, particularly hitting Iowa, the largest pork producer in the nation. The Iowa Pork Producers Association is urging producers to be careful controlling who goes in and out of the farms.
“It’s hard to think that [it could spread by] just walking on [floor] mats at a Casey’s or Kum and Go when you go just to grab a sandwich for lunch,” said Heather Hora, an eastern Iowa representative for the Iowa Pork board. “You can bring it into your farm, that’s why you see farmers wearing booties now or changing their shoes when they go into town so they don’t spread [the disease].”
Pork producers are also being asked to increase biosecurity protocols — which includes not allowing visitors on the plant, ensure trailers are cleaned after transporting the hogs, and implementing a line of separation between the animals and the producer.
It is difficult for officials to say how many cases have been reported in the state, due to the FDA not requiring farms to report when there is a case of the virus. Although consumers may not know what farms have been affected by the disease, PDEV only affects hogs and does not affect consumer’s health.
Although there is no exact number of cases reported, one Winthrop independent pork producer, Ken Kehrli, said the cases he does hear about seem to keep moving across the country.
“It seems like across the U.S. it’s moving from east to west,” Kehrli said. “But moving it is.”
More people have taken note of the virus due to publicity surrounding farmer’s tactics of removing piglets killed by PDEV. In many cases, the farmer will do what is called “feedback”, which entails grinding up the intestines or head of the deceased piglets and feeding it to the older sow. Some complaints arose from the practice, calling it forced cannibalism, but Ron Birkenholz, communications director for Iowa Pork Producer Association, said he does not see a problem with the feedback.
“It’s like you and I getting a flu shot,” he said. “It’s so they can build up an immunity to the disease. It’s been around for years.”
There is currently a vaccine for the disease, but there have been issues with accessibility, and also an unknown as to if the vaccine is effective or not. Although the pork industry has gone through its share of viruses over the years, Hora said PDEV is different than past outbreaks.
“It’s different than most anything in the past,” said Hora, who has been in the pork industry for 23 years. “It’s not reportable. [Other diseases] were nasty, but you could find out how to eradicate it. Right now it’s so new, we just don’t know what to do.”
Researchers at Iowa State University are currently trying to solve that problem by doing extensive work on PDEV. Last August, they created a test that could tell which animals had already had the PDEV strain. Now, they are continuing their work to find ways to help slow the spread, as well as create an effective vaccine.
“This is a virus we've never had in North America before,” said Dr. Rodney Baker, senior clinician at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "This is going to cost the industry a lot of money without a good vaccine. It's a serious need to study the virus.”
As the warmer months may come, there could be a decline in the spread of the disease. However, consumers can still be affected the potential rise in cost of pork when summer comes around, and the decline in hogs is evident. Some producers see the upcoming months as a possible positive out of the hard winter months: they have the chance to earn more income, but only if the consumer is willing to pay. Ken Kehrli, an independent pork producer in Winthrop, said only time will tell when it comes to supply and demand.“I think the market has reflected the reality of the low numbers,” Kehrli said. “Future trading is at record high. It will be interesting to see how the supply and demand will turn out, but it looks like the pork production industry is going to be rewarded. Higher prices may be good to a producer, but you want the consumer to be able to afford it.”