U.S. bacon prices rise after virus kills baby pigs


MILWAUKEE (AP) — 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.
vary, but one economist believes case data indicate more than 6 million
piglets in 27 states have died since porcine epidemic diarrhea showed up
in the U.S. last May. A more conservative estimate from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture shows the nation’s pig herd has shrunk at
least 3 percent to about 63 million pigs since the disease appeared.
think the virus, which does not infect humans or other animals, came
from China, but they don’t know how it got into the country. 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 and the state
hardest hit by the disease. He trained workers to spot symptoms, had
them shower and change clothing before entering barns and limited
deliveries and visitors.
Despite his best efforts, the deadly
diarrhea attacked in November, killing 13,000 animals in a matter of
weeks, most of them less than 2 weeks old. The farm produces about
150,000 pigs each year.
Diarrhea affects pigs like people:
Symptoms that are uncomfortable in adults become life-threatening in
newborns that dehydrate quickly. The best chance at saving young pigs is
to wean them and then pump them with clear fluids that hydrate them
without taxing their intestines. But nothing could be done for the
youngest ones except euthanasia.
"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."
Scientists believe PED came
from China, which has seen repeated outbreaks since the 1980s and severe
strains emerging in recent years. Outbreaks previously hit Europe as
PED thrives in cold weather, so the death toll in the U.S. has soared since December.
first reports came from the Midwest, and the states most affected are
those with the largest share of the nation’s pigs: Iowa, Minnesota,
North Carolina and Illinois. The disease also has spread to Canada and
Some states now require a veterinarian to certify that
pigs coming in are virus-free, and China has asked the U.S. Department
of Agriculture to similarly vouch for animals shipped overseas.
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.
It takes about six months for a
hog to reach market weight so the supply will be short for a while.
Smithfield Foods, one of the nation’s largest pork processors, has cut
some plant shifts to four days per week in North Carolina, and those in
the Midwest are likely to do so later this spring, said Steve Meyer, an
Iowa-based economist and pork industry consultant.
Smithfield Foods declined to comment.
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.
all used to: ‘We’ve got plenty of food, it’s cheap. We’ll eat what we
want to,’" Meyer said. "We Americans are very spoiled by that, but this
is one of those times that we’re going to find out that when one of
these things hits, it costs us a lot of money."
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