The Canadian pork industry is bracing for the arrival of a virus that has killed more than a million young pigs in the United States and caused meat prices to spike higher last spring.
The virus, which is deadly for piglets, was found in the United States last spring and sent pork prices soaring by 25 per cent. Known as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), the virus has since been reported in 22 states and is predicted to cause a drop in the size of the U.S. herd by as much as 3 per cent this year as its spread accelerates.
Efforts to disinfect trucks at the border and heightened awareness of cleanliness at the farm gate have helped prevent the arrival of the virus in Canada. But Robert Friendship, a professor who studies swine health management at the University of Guelph in Ontario, said it is likely only a matter of time before a farm here is infected.
"Keep our fingers crossed, but most people talk about when it comes, rather than if," Dr. Friendship said.
For the Canadian pork industry, the next three months are key. PED spreads more quickly in the cold, which helps keep it alive.
Hog handling areas, barns and the trucks that transport the animals are wetter and muddier in winter, presenting ideal conditions for PED.
"Viruses don't respect regulations," said Greg Douglas, Ontario's chief veterinarian. "They do respect active biological controls. At the farm gate is the most critical."
Canada exports far more pigs to the United States than it imports, so the flow of animals is largely southbound, and trucks return empty. These trucks are the most likely way the virus could arrive, and they are washed, disinfected and dried at cleaning stations before being allowed onto farms. The virus, which kills suckling piglets within five days and slows growth in older ones, is spread through hog-to-hog contact, and dirty boots and trucks. PED does not affect humans, nor does it enter the food supply.
"There's a heightened awareness of this because they know this bug could put them out of business. That's what has happened in many cases in the States," said Robert Harding, executive director of the Canadian Swine Health Board, which is comprised of industry and veterinary groups.
The virus's arrival in Canada will mean "great economic loss" for farmers and a shortage of animals for slaughter that will lead to higher prices at the butcher, said Rick Bergmann, who raises 1,700 sows near Steinbach, Man., and is vice-chairman of the Manitoba Pork Council.
"To date, we're very fortunate that there's no case of PED in Canada and we're doing our best to maintain that," Mr. Bergmann said.
The pork industry accounts for 30 per cent of Canadian livestock exports and 10 per cent of the farming sector's revenues. After grains and beef, pork is the country's third most valuable agricultural commodity.
Canada exported more than 5.6 million live hogs and a billion kilograms of pork in 2012, worth a total of about $3.5-billion. The United States is the biggest buyer, followed by Japan, Russia and China. Of the hog-producing provinces, Quebec is the largest. Ontario and Manitoba are next.
PED is casting a shadow on an industry whose future was starting to look brighter, after several years of soaring costs and shrinking markets caused by a handful of global events. In 2009, Canadian pork exports were hammered amid an outbreak of the unfortunately named swine flu, despite no scientific evidence it could be passed to humans. Other headwinds include soaring costs for corn and other feed amid the droughts of 2011 and 2012 and competition from the biofuels industry.
This year was looking better: the bumper grains crop has driven down the prices for hog feed, and farmers are rebuilding their herds to take advantage of strong market prices, especially in China.
The wild card is PED.
Farmers who find it are forced to eliminate much of their herds, either by sending them to market or quarantining the sick ones before they die of dehydration brought on by diarrhea and vomiting. A sow typically produces just two litters a year, and replacing animals takes time. Even then, there is no guarantee the virus won't reappear, and there is no proven vaccination against it.
The United States Department of Agriculture said the size of the U.S. swine herd shrank by one per cent in the latest quarter, confirming for the first time the impact of the virus and sparking fears pork prices would begin soaring at the same time Americans are firing up barbecues. Since the beginning of January, hog prices in Chicago have risen by 6 per cent.
The discovery of PED last year in Ohio was the first in North and South America, although it is present in parts of Europe and Asia. Genetic tests confirmed the U.S. strain came from China, but it is not known how.
"That's what's creating some consternation over this," said Mr. Harding, of the Swine Health Board. "There are no live pigs that came from China to the States, there are no pig trucks that came from China to the States. It really is confounding everyone."