Isle of Wight hog farmers using disinfectants, extra restrictions to protect herds

July 23, 2013|By Allison T. Williams and Michael Welles Shapiro, | 757-247-4535

ISLE OF WIGHT — A virus that has killed thousands of young pigs in 15 states has now leaped from the Midwest to North Carolina.

The states affected include eight where a Smithfield Foods hog-raising subsidiary has facilities. The company says none of its 12 sow farms — company-owned facilities where sows give birth to piglets — have been affected.

Murphy-Brown, Smithfield’s North Carolina-based hog farming unit, owns 460 farms and contracts with 2,100 farmers in 12 states. It has directed its farmers to take steps to protect their herds from the virus. No visitors are allowed and people who work with the animals wear boots and are sprayed with disinfectant whenever they leave a pig enclosure.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, known as PEDV, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. Although pigs of all ages can be infected with the virus, older pigs have stronger immune systems and become more resistant to the disease, said Harry Snelson, a veterinarian and communications director for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

“The highest mortality rate is in infected piglets younger than seven days,” Snelson said. Entire herds of young pigs have died from the virus, particularly in the Midwestern states that are among the country’s top pork producers.

Previously, the virus was only found in Europe and China, where it killed more than a million young pigs last year. Researchers do not know how the virus reached the United States, but it is moving rapidly. It was first confirmed in Arkansas in May. By the end of June, it had spread to more than 330 farms in 15 states.

The virus

No cases of PEDV have been reported in Virginia, said Elaine Lidholm, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. In recent weeks, the disease has shown up at three North Carolina hog operations. None of those facilities have any connection to Smithfield or any other Virginia hog facilities, Lidholm said.

Since May, outbreaks also have been confirmed in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Dakota, according to the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.

“I suspect the virus is already here among our swine herds in Virginia, given how quickly it has spread in other parts of the country,” said X.J. Meng, a professor and researcher at Virginia Tech’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Farmers may not recognize the disease because of its similarity to a treatable illness, he said.

The virus is not harmful to humans and does not have any impact on pork products in supermarkets across the country, Lidholm said.

Local efforts

With operations in 12 states, Smithfield has implemented a comprehensive series of procedures to decrease the possible presence of PEDV at its facilities, said company spokeswoman Keira Lombardo.,

The company is taking steps to ensure that biosecurity procedures are followed, adjusting feed delivery procedures and monitoring industry incidences of PEDV, especially those near its sow farms, Lombardo said. She declined to give the locations of the company’s sow farms.

Robbie Taylor, an Isle of Wight contract farmer expecting a new herd of 1,800 pigs this week, says Murphy-Brown has directed farmers to take extra precautions. No visitors are allowed near the pig houses and anyone who works with the animals wears boots and is sprayed with a disinfectant every time he enters or leaves the facilities.

“You have to be real careful,” said Taylor. “The young man I have taking care of the pigs for me is extremely cautious.”

Isle of Wight farmer Rex Alphin, who rotates two herds of 3,000 hogs through his Carrsville farm annually, says producers are keeping a closer eye on their hogs’ health.

“An unhealthy pig is easy to spot when you are around healthy ones very much,” Alphin said. Any signs of poor health – rough hair, excessive coughing, lethargic or unusual stools – are immediately reported to Murphy-Brown, he said.

From ceiling to feeders to floors, pig houses are cleaned and disinfected more frequently and thoroughly with high pressure washers and disinfectants, Alphin said.

“Everything that’s used or worn in the pig houses stays there,” Alphin said. Pig houses are equipped with showers and washing machines, which helps keep the virus from spreading, he said.

Alphin and Taylor usually keep the hogs for about four and a half months, fattening them up before they are taken to slaughterhouses, according to Alphin.

Newborn piglets stay with sows for around three weeks, until they are weaned from their mothers. After another six to eight weeks in a nursery, the pigs – now weighing about 50 pounds – are delivered to his farm, Alphin said. They are taken to the slaughterhouse at around 270 pounds, he said.

Fiscal impact

Although some analysts have projected the virus could drive up pork prices, Jonah Bowles, senior agricultural market analyst with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, is doubtful. He expects pork prices will hover around current levels unless there is a massive, uncontrollable PEDV outbreak in the United States.

Fear could influence consumption, he said. Demand could drop, and with it pork prices, if consumers fail to understand that pork products are still safe for humans, he said.

The biggest driver of domestic and international pork prices, he said, is how countries with growing middle-class populations with new disposable incomes, particularly China, feed their citizens.

On Monday, lean hog futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange were trading at 84.3 cent per pound for pigs delivered in February 2014. Prices had climbed as high as 96 cents last week.

In 2011, hogs were Virginia’s 13th largest agricultural commodity, pumping $60 million into the state’s economy, according to state statistics. That was down from $63 million in 2010, when swine operations ranked 11th among commodities.

The virus is not likely to impact Chinese pork producer Shuanghui International’s $4.7 billion bid to buy Smithfield Foods, said Clayton Bailey, a Dallas lawyer who has worked with large meat companies.

“You see this from time to time in this arena,” said Bailey. “You’re not producing widgets, you’re dealing with living and breathing animals, which have these issues.

“If you have a lot of animals that are killed, that’s a portion of the asset on the company’s book.”

But he said it would take a very large and lethal outbreak to hurt Smithfield’s bottom line or impact the planned — but not completed — acquisition.

“I would think for there to be a material impact there’d have to be a whole lot of swine impacted by this virus,” Bailey said.

Virus studies

Researchers around the country are trying to find a vaccine and track how the disease – which is transmitted by infected food or fecal matter – made its way into the United States, Meng said.

The disease does not have to be reported to state or federal officials, forcing researchers to rely on producers, diagnostic labs and state veterinary reports for their data. Neither Meng nor Snelson could estimate how many pigs in the United States have died from PEDV.

“We do a fairly good job controlling it, but we have not successfully eradicated it,” Meng said. The best preventative measures against spreading the virus including additional sanitizing of trucks and facilities that house hogs, he said.

“It’s a very short window when the pig is infected … and treating the disease is not an option,” Meng said. “Right now, we have a sporadic number of small cases.”

“I do not see this having a significant impact on pork prices or pork production unless it spreads to hundreds of thousands of pigs,” Meng said. “But it is difficult to predict right now. There are too many unknowns right now.”

What is it?

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus is contagious virus that causes diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration in pigs. While it is fatal to young pigs, it does not affect humans, other animals or pork products.

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