Bacon prices could be on their way up with news that a farm in Indiana has confirmed a second outbreak of a pig disease that has already killed off seven million swine in just over a year.
The farm’s veterinarian, Matt Ackerman, announced on Tuesday that the unidentified farm had experienced a re-break of the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv), making it the first in the country to publicly confirm a second incident.
"Just because a farm broke with PEDv last year doesn't mean that they are protected from re-breaking with it this year," Ackerman told Reuters.
PEDv is a viral disease that causes severe diarrhea and vomiting in pigs. The virus largely affects young piglets and has a mortality rate as high as 100 percent. While the disease is deadly in pigs, it is not transmissible to humans and does not affect food safety. PEDv first appeared in Europe in 1971 and caused an endemic in Asia in 1982, but was not seen in the US until April of 2013.
Since the first outbreak occurred last year, ten percent of the country's swine population has been wiped out. Until recently, researchers and industry experts largely believed that immunity developed in infected pigs within two to three weeks and could last for years. However, the news of a confirmed re-break and other unreported second outbreaks are raising concern.
“In the beginning we thought all of the practices used to reduce Transmissible Gastroenteritis would work with PEDv, but we’re finding PED is a tougher virus, much more infective,” Liz Wagstrom, the chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producer’s Council, told VICE News, referring to another common coronavirus that affects pigs. “It’s a lot harder to control than its cousin.”
When PEDv first broke, industry experts began recommending improved biosecurity measures — practices that are already considered quite thorough in US pig farms. The virus is believed to be transmitted between the animals through contaminated manure, which can be transported via the pigs themselves, on the clothes of farm workers or even on trucks transporting the animals.
Farms have had to amp up measures to limit animal movement and ensure vehicle and personnel are disinfected upon entering and exiting farms and meat packing plants. These measures have not been as successful at combatting PEDv as originally thought. Facing the fact that the risk of re-breaks is no longer just a possibility, Wagstrom says the industry is starting to look at other transmission risk factors they might have missed.
“We do have some farms that have rebroken that can’t be explained by biosecurity or pig movement,” she said. “We’re looking at what else might be bringing it in.”
While veterinarians like Wagstrom work on a tackling PEDv, the virus has already taken a toll on pig supply and pork industry prices. Both hog futures and retail pork prices are at record highs. Futures have hit $115 per hundredweight, up 26 percent since PEDv first hit the scene last year.
Steve Meyer, a pork economist and president of Paragon Economics, told VICE News that the industry reacted strongly to the initial outbreak and the resulting pig deaths. He expects prices to remain stable through the summer, but says there will be a gap in the market this fall when the piglet deaths from the re-break become more apparent.
Hogs will be raised to heavier weights before being taken to market, which will help balance out population declines. But Meyer says there will still be supply issues that will trickle down to the consumer.
“The cost of this is going to fall on pork consumers at some point because this is a supply issue, not a demand issue,” he said, explaining that demand has stayed the same despite already increasing pork prices.
Bacon fanatics may be paying more at the grocery store, but one of the more concerning effects could be the impact PEDv could have on workers at pork processing plants. Meyer says plants from North Carolina to Oklahoma have already cut back on slaughtering operations and work hours.
In March, Smithfield Foods Inc. eliminated a day from its slaughtering schedule at the Tar Heel pork processing plant in North Carolina because of the virus' effect on the pig population. The Tar Heel facility is the largest of its kind in the US, where up to 34,000 pigs are slaughtered each day. Similarly, Hormel Foods Corp. announced plans to reduce operations in its Midwest plants.
Meyer said he expects a lot of plants in the upper Midwest will cut hours this year as a result of PEDv’s continued presence. As of 2011 there were 136 pork processing plants throughout the country and nearly 35,000 direct, full-time pork producing jobs. The industry generates more than $20 billion in personal income each year.
“It’s going to have an effect on a lot of small towns,” Meyer said. “If you take a day of work out of the paychecks of some of these workers, that’s going to leave a mark on Mainstreet.”
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB