Killer Virus Driving Up Pork Prices, Creating Environmental Worries

Saturday, 05 Jul 2014 04:36 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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A deadly virus has been killing more than 100,000 piglets and young hogs every week since May 2013, driving up pork prices and and creating the potential for an environmental catastrophe.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PEDv) is spreading nationwide since it first showed up in Iowa last year, and as a result, according to records from the United States Agriculture Department, hog harvesting is down 4.2 percent this year alone, reports The New York Times.  That means just 50 million hogs have been slaughtered and processed this year, compared to more than 52 million for the same period in 2013.

The slaughter slowdown is forcing prices for bacon and center-cut pork chops up, with bacon prices rising more than 15 percent and pork chops up by 13 percent, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I’ve been a vet since 1981, and there is no precedent for this," Paul Sundberg, vice president for science and technology at the National Pork Board, told The Times. "It is devastatingly virulent."

The board reports the disease is not communicable to humans or other animals. Further, according to a statement, it is not a new disease, but was first recognized in England in 1971. The disease has also been identified in a number of European countries, and more recently in China, Korea and Japan.

But though the virus does not affect humans, but there is still concern that the decomposing pig carcasses can host other diseases.

The animals' deaths are happening so rapidly, and at such high numbers, that environmentalists say their disposal could contaminate groundwater supplies, said Kelly Foster, senior attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. The group has asked the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to declare a state of emergency and put a mass disposal plan into effect.

Waterkeeper has been posting photos on its website and videos on YouTube of dead piglets that are barely buried and of boxes filled with dead young piglets.

State Agriculture Commissioner Steven Troxler said in a letter to Waterkeeper that he believes existing disposal systems, which include composting and sending carcasses to rendering facilities can meet the challenges. Further, he said, the state is "not aware of any published scientific data" to show the groundwater has been contaminated.

Meanwhile, some of the state's large hog operations are protesting aerial photos of farms, and three state lawmakers have proposed a bill requiring state agencies to keep aerial photos of agriculture operations that include global positioning coordinates locked up.

There are no exact records about how many pigs have died from the disease, said to be 100 percent lethal to two-to-three-week-old piglets. The Agriculture Department did not require reporting the disease until June, and does not collect data, referring questions to the hog industry.

The National Pork Producers Council said it does not have its own figures, but has heard PEDv has killed about 8 million pigs. The virus has been reported in 31 states, and can survive and spread for long periods.

Work on a vaccine is underway, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pledged $26.2 million to help fight the disease. The largest portion of the plan, some $11.1 million, will toward helping hog producers whose herds are infected enhance biosecurity practices.

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