A virus not seen before in the United States killed millions of baby pigs since last May, and it is threatening pork production and pushing up pork prices.
Estimates on how many pigs have died from porcine epidemic diarrhea in the last year vary, from 2.7 million to as many as 6 million. Because PED thrives in cold weather, there has been a larger death toll since December. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the country's pig population has decreased by as much as three percent to roughly 63 million pigs.
Scientists think the virus came from China, but they do not know how it got into the U.S. or how it spread to 27 states in less than a year. They do know that it does not infect humans or other animals.
Prices of pork products have already increased sharply. A pound of bacon averaged $5.46 in February, up 13 percent from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Ham and chops prices have also gone up, although not much.
The U.S. is a top producer and exporter of pork, and it is estimated that production could decrease by seven percent this year compared to last year, the biggest drop in more than 30 years, according to Rabobank.
PED is life-threatening to newborn pigs because it causes them to dehydrate quickly. The best chance at saving young pigs is to wean them and then pump them with clear fluids that hydrate them. Craig Rowles, a farmer and veterinarian with a farm in Iowa, explained that many of the 13,000 pigs that died on his farm in a matter of weeks in November had to be euthanized.
"It's very difficult for the people who are working the barns at that point," Rowles said.
"No one wants to go to work today and think about making the decision of baby pigs that need to be humanely euthanized because they can't get up anymore. Those are very hard days," Rowles said.
The federal government is looking into how these types of viruses might spread, and the pork industry has committed $1.7 million to research the disease. Researchers are rushing to come up with a vaccine, but one has not yet been approved by the federal government.
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