By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
CAMP HILL — Pork producers across the Valley — and the commonwealth — are on the alert after an email was sent last week by the state Department of Agriculture warning farmers about a still existing virus that last year killed 12 piglets in Pennsylvania.
Livestock economists estimate the porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, virus already has killed about 1 million baby pigs in the U.S. since it was first found in Iowa last spring, and although the number of cases found in Pennsylvania was relatively small, the potency of the disease is such that the department is urging vigilance.
“We’re certainly monitoring the situation,” a spokesman said Friday.
The state Department of Agriculture does not track the disease, however. “That’s a job best done within the industry, by the industry,” the state spokesman said. Neither representatives in the industry nor government officials could say in what counties the disease occurred last year.
Meanwhile, the facts of PED are incontrovertible. If unchecked, the PED virus spreads relentlessly, not unlike how a cold can rip through a preschool classroom even if kids are required to wash their hands. PED spreads in barns and from farm to farm, even when strict biosecurity measures, such as hand-washing for livestock workers, are in place. That’s because it can survive in tiny bits of manure that travel on boots or trucks.
There are early signs of another PED outbreak. Canada reported its first two cases Thursday.
That has veterinarians worried, even though a vaccine is available.
Also worried are farmers like Cloyd Walden, of Beavertown, who owns six pigs on his small farm. “I never thought much about any of this until I heard about PEDs in the news,” he said Friday night. “Now I keep close watch on the piglets.”
Walden said he keeps track of agricultural issues and warnings on the Department of Agriculture website. He plans to vaccinate his pigs, even though there are those who believe the vaccination is not 100 percent effective.
So far, no cases have been reported in Pennsylvania or the United States, according to Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He also wanted to emphasize that the PED virus poses no threat to food safety or human health.
But all that is not enough to ease the fears of commodity speculators, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. According to its reporting, it appears that pork prices will go up in supermarkets this summer, based on current hog futures, and that investors are propping up hog futures based on the threat of the PED virus.
Buoyed by strong consumer demand and tight supplies, lean-hog prices have jumped 19 percent this year at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. That represents the biggest gain among commodities in the Dow Jones-UBS commodity index.
Meanwhile, hog farmers in central Pennsylvania are taking the threat of the PED virus seriously, “and they are hopeful that biosecurity measures on the farm will help reduce the risk of PED among their animals and thwart the possibility of losing their pigs due to the virus,” O’Neill said. “If the scope of the disease spreads in 2014, reducing hog inventories, then consumers could experience price increases, but that is not a foregone conclusion at this time.”
Many other factors affect the price of pork, including feed that this year is cheaper because of the huge corn harvest in 2013. Farmers also are putting more meat on hogs that will reach the market, hoping to reduce the overall loss of pork and keep prices steady.
A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the end of December showed the total U.S. swine herd at nearly 66 million animals.