A virus never before seen in the U.S. has killed millions of baby pigs in less than a year, and with little known about how it spreads or how to stop it, it’s threatening pork production and pushing up prices by 10 percent or more.
Scientists think porcine epidemic diarrhea, which does not infect humans or other animals, came from China, but they don’t know how it got into the country or spread to 27 states since last May. The federal government is looking into how such viruses might spread, while the pork industry, wary of future outbreaks, has committed $1.7 million to research the disease.
The U.S. is both a top producer and exporter of pork, but production could decline about 7 percent this year compared to last — the biggest drop in more than 30 years, according to a recent report from Rabobank, which focuses on the food, beverage and agribusiness industries.
Already, prices have shot up: A pound of bacon averaged $5.46 in February, 13 percent more than a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ham and chops have gone up too, although not as much.
Farmer and longtime veterinarian Craig Rowles did all he could to prevent PED from spreading to his farm in Iowa, the nation’s top pork producer. Despite his best efforts, he lost 13,000 animals in a matter of weeks.
Some states now require a veterinarian to certify that pigs coming in are virus-free, while China, which has seen repeated outbreaks since the 1980s, has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to similarly vouch for animals shipped overseas.
Companies are racing to develop a vaccine, but the federal government has yet to approve one. While the mass deaths have been a blow for farmers, the financial impact to them may be limited because pork prices are rising to make up for the loss of animals.
In the end, consumers will be most affected, Meyer said, with pork prices likely to be 10 percent higher overall this summer than a year ago.