Worried Canadian pork producers are stepping up measures to fend off a potentially devastating virus that has cut a deadly swath across the United States and is showing its first signs of life across the border.
The virus could have a major impact on Canada's $3.5-billion pork industry, which accounts for 30 per cent of total livestock shipments and 10 per cent of all farm cash receipts, and result in steep hikes for consumers in the price of bacon and other pork products.
Known as porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), the virus has already infected at least two Ontario farms. A second case was confirmed this weekend in a farm in Chatham-Kent, as well as a possible third case in the same region.
The first case, at a so-called farrow-to-finish farm in southwestern Ontario, was discovered last week. Farrow-to-finish farms breed their own piglets and raise them to market weight, a practice meant to prevent the entry and spread of illness.
"We estimate that if it were to spread past Ontario throughout Canada, within one year, it could cost $45-million to the Canadian pork industry," said Amy Cronin of Ontario Pork.
It's unclear where the virus came from but Greg Douglas, Ontario's chief veterinarian, said there appears to be an "indirect link" between the affected farms.
So far, the province has stopped short of imposing a quarantine, saying farmers are co-operating and neither pigs nor animal products are leaving the infected farms.
In Quebec, pork producer and processor Olymel LP said last week that a swab of the surface of a loading dock at its slaughterhouse in St-Esprit proved PED positive, but the company says there is no sign of the virus among livestock.
"I am hugely concerned about this [virus]," said François Berthiaume, a hog farmer in St-Elzéar in the Beauce region south of Quebec City.
Mr. Berthiaume, whose family farm Porc S.B. raises about 1,800 nursing pigs, said the virus could wipe out his entire baby herd and result in losses of up to $700,000, just as 2014 is shaping up to be an "excellent year."
The virus has already spread to 22 states south of the border and touched off soaring prices.
"What you're seeing in the U.S. would certainly follow suit here in Canada," said Rick Bergmann, a board member of the Canadian Pork Council.
As in Canada, the virus is not a reportable disease under U.S. law, so it could even be more widespread there than authorities realize.
Since PED was found in the U.S., bacon prices have risen by 13 per cent at a time when the American herd is still being rebuilt after the 2012 drought that drove up feed costs and led farmers to cull pigs.
There are no known vaccines against PED, and it can take weeks before herds develop a natural immunity against it.
The mortality rate among suckling pigs is close to 100 per cent, while older swine are weakened by the virus and do not gain weight. The animals usually die of dehydration within five days of contracting the virus.
The virus is carried in feces and is spread through hog-to-hog contact. Dirty transport trucks are also believed to be a major factor in its rapid transmission.
The Canadian Pork Council is urging all producers to be rigorous in ensuring that trucks have been thorougly washed, disinfected and dried before entering their facilities.
PED has no effect on humans and does not enter the food supply chain.
The Quebec pork producers' association – Les Éleveurs de porcs du Québec – has asked Ottawa to tighten controls along the Canada-U.S. border, said spokeswoman Gaëlle Leruste.
"The Canadian Food Inspection Agency could for example inspect all pork transport trucks coming in. It might not block the virus but it could at least slow it down," she said.
The Quebec association is also looking to start up an emergency fund to help compensate producers who might be hit, she added. Quebec is the largest hog-producing province, followed by Ontario and Manitoba.
"We've been reviewing and putting protocols in place in the last few months in anticipation the virus is coming to Canada," said Claude Vielfaure, a pork council board member and vice-president at pork processor HyLife Ltd. in La Broquerie, Man.
With a report from The Canadian Press