Pig virus pushes pork prices up

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 28, 2014 - 5:13 PM

The pig disease is not harmful to humans or other animals, but it’s causing significant losses in the swine industry.

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While the virus is not harmful to humans or other animals, it is taking a toll on the pork industry. Biosecurity, or extensive cleaning and disinfecting, has become a top priority for farms.

Photo: Minnesota Pork Board,

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Consumers may experience sticker shock at supermarkets this summer as they shop for bacon, ham and other pork products because of a virus that has killed more than 7 million baby pigs across the country, including Minnesota.

Pork prices are 15 percent higher than one year ago, and they’re likely to shoot higher soon. U.S. hog futures, which have soared 50 percent this year, set a new record last week. Federal officials recently announced new mandatory reporting requirements effective immediately to get a better handle on the disease.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) likely originated in China, but no one knows how it entered the United States in May 2013, or how long it may take to control it. The highly contagious disease has spread to 30 states and infected an estimated 50 to 60 percent of swine farms.

The stakes are high for Minnesota, the nation’s second-largest pork producer after Iowa, and home of two large pork processing plants: Hormel in Austin and JBS in Worthington. The virus spiked in Minnesota during the heart of winter and is still infecting herds, although at a slower pace.

“This is an extremely big deal,” said Jim Collins, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. “It’s extremely important to the swine industry in Minnesota, which is a huge agricultural business.”

Several hundred Minnesota farms have been affected by the virus, according to the U’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and Minnesota has the second-highest number of positive cases in the country, as reported to the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

The virus has alarmed and frustrated the swine industry, since there is no vaccine to prevent the disease. Farmers have ratcheted up biosecurity to keep their farms isolated, or in some cases to prevent the disease from reinfecting their herds.

Despite all the concerns, the good news is that PEDv is infectious only to swine, and is not a food safety concern, said Dave Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association. “It’s not a disease that affects other animals, and it’s not a disease that affects humans,” he said. “Because of that, it has had no effect on exports.”

Feds take action

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture acknowledged the “significant impact” of PEDv and two other swine viruses that have been discovered in recent months. Because pigs have no initial immunity to the viruses, officials said, “the U.S. swine population is at risk.”

A federal order effective June 5 requires pork producers, veterinarians and diagnostic labs in Minnesota and elsewhere to report confirmed detections of the disease to USDA or to state animal health authorities. Some herds that had the disease are becoming reinfected, officials said, so mandatory reporting is needed to identify the total number of infected herds and where they are located. The order also requires farmers with diseased herds to provide a plan of how they’re managing the problem through monitoring and various biosecurity measures, such as controlled access to farms and disinfection of facilities.

USDA also announced a $26 million package that includes research dollars to help develop a vaccine for the virus, and cost-share funding for pork producers who need to ramp up their biosecurity.

Closer monitoring is already a fact of life for Kevin Hugoson, who estimates that he lost about 1,250 baby pigs in February and March at one of his farms near Fairmont in south-central Minnesota.

“The intensity of the virus is just off the charts,” said Hugoson, who has 750 sows on his home farm. “It moves very easily. You just need a little speck maybe on your shoe and that could contaminate your whole herd.”

The virus spreads through manure and perhaps through feed slightly contaminated with manure. Hugoson said he has boosted biosecurity “fivefold” on the farm to regain control. Swine farms always use disinfectants to reduce the possibility of any disease that can spread like fire in confined feedlots, but Hugoson said he has clamped down even more on access to his farms, and his workers are being especially diligent to wear disposable booties and wash out trailers and other vehicles that have transported hogs.

How it works

The virus is picked up by nearly all pigs, but it only kills the youngest piglets. “Pigs are born healthy, they look fine, and then they’ll get a couple days old and if they’ve been infected with this, everything goes right through them and they just dehydrate to death,” said Preisler.

Older pigs and hogs may get sick for a few days and stop gaining weight, but they usually recover, he said.

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