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Feed Suspect in Swine Virus

03/31/2014 @ 8:07am

Scientists and regulators investigating the mysterious spread of a deadly virus plaguing the U.S. pork industry are stepping up their scrutiny of what the nation's hog herd eats.

With a dearth of solid leads, investigators are exploring whether something in pig feed could be a conduit for porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which has spread to 27 states and killed millions of young pigs since it was first identified in the U.S. last April. One focus of the inquiry: porcine plasma, a widely used feed ingredient made from the blood of slaughtered hogs and fed to piglets.

Scientists say the virus, one of the most devastating diseases to afflict U.S. livestock in years, is fatal only to young pigs, and poses no threat to human health or food safety. But it has rapidly increased costs for major hog-farm operators, such as Smithfield Foods Inc. and Maschoffs LLC, as prices for replacement pigs have soared to new highs.

The disease threatens to curb U.S. pork supplies in coming months and raise costs for big meat processors, such as Hormel Foods Corp. and Hillshire Brands Co., as well as retailers and consumers, analysts say.

The number of new confirmed cases of the virus has accelerated recently, confounding farmers and veterinarians, who have ramped up their already stringent biosecurity measures since last spring. Those precautions include more aggressively disinfecting trucks and workers' boots and clothing when they enter and leave farms and barns.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department, and pork-industry officials are examining a range of feed ingredients and manufacturing processes as well as other possible pathways for the virus, like contaminated air or dust particles carried from farm to farm.

Though the evidence is inconclusive, some researchers say that porcine plasma could be spreading the virus from adult pigs that show few symptoms, or that some plasma may have been contaminated in transit.

The ingredient has been a mainstay of piglet diets in the U.S. since the 1990s, after scientists discovered it provided antibodies to protect young pigs from disease and helped them switch from feeding from their mother to the grain-heavy diet common on livestock farms.

Last month, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency disclosed that it had found plasma contaminated with the virus, after multiple hog farms in Ontario that were hit by PED, and another farm on Prince Edward Island with a suspected case, all reported that they bought feed from the same vendor, Ontario-based Grand Valley Fortifiers.

The Canadian agency said that the virus was present in plasma that originated in the U.S. and was obtained at the company that manufactured Grand Valley's feed, which the agency has declined to identify. It said the plasma contained virus "capable of causing disease in pigs."

Earlier this month, however, the agency said laboratory tests in which it fed Grand Valley's feed pellets to piglets failed to demonstrate that the feed, which contained plasma and many other ingredients, could cause infection.

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