Everything You Need to Know About the Piglet-Killing Virus That's Hit the Pork Industry

Here's what you need to know about the virus that has killed roughly 7 million pigs this year. Be warned, this rundown is not for the queasy.  

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In May of last year, researchers at Iowa State confirmed that a virus that targets piglets had been found in the United States. Since then, about 7 million baby pigs have succumbed to the virus and the U.S. pork industry is predicting up to a seven percent shrink in output this year. So what is this disease and should you be scared of it?

Here's what you need to know about the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv). Be warned, this rundown is not for the queasy.

Is it dangerous for humans?

No. PEDv is not transferable to humans and really only affects young pigs.

Is it as disgusting as it sounds?

Yes. PEDv is a coronavirus that causes vomiting and severe diarrhea in pigs. Most adult pigs can survive the virus, but PEDv kills 80-to-100 percent of all piglets who fall ill. The virus is spread orally and through feces, and is highly contagious. Reuters reports that one tablespoon of manure infected with PEDv could infect the entire U.S. hog herd, or about 66 million pigs.

How did it get to the U.S.?

It's not clear how this bout of PEDv was introduced to the States, but some suspect that pig feed, which often contains dehydrated pig's blood, could be at fault. Some experts hypothesize that this strain comes from China, per Reuters:

[The strain] is nearly identical to one that infected pigs in China's Anhui province, according to a report published in the American Society of Microbiology journal mBio. "We find genetic similarities between the two, but we did not trace the virus between China and the United States," OIE's Vallat said.

So there's still no definitive answer to that question.

Could PEDv spread globally?

It's possible, and European countries are taking some steps to prevent that outcome. Yesterday, the European Commission announced new rules on treating imported pig blood to be used in feeds, but said that it wouldn't alter laws on importing live pigs.

How will it affect the pork industry?

Food Business News reports that, per research done by Rabobank, pork prices are set to rise because of the virus. "PEDv has been the driving force pushing up pork prices, especially in the U.S., to record highs," says Rabobank analyst Albert Vernooij. Donnie Smith, Tyson Food CEO, said his company's hog production will fall about four percent this year. And Rabobank said that the virus “will have a material impact on pork supply both this summer and in the years to come."

How is the U.S. coping with the virus?

There's no known vaccine for PEDv, which is making it difficult to contain the outbreak. One (pretty horrifying) way to immunize pigs from the virus is to feed them the remains of pigs killed by it. This method is not looked upon kindly upon by animals rights groups, like the Humane Society, which posted a video of the "piglet smoothie" being made and fed to sows at Iron Maiden Hog Farm in Owensboro, Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Livestock Coalition, the practice is a "widely-accepted and veterinary-recommended management practice."

Officials are also attempting to curb the epidemic by instructing states to host "terminal" show at fairs. That's a somewhat coded way of asking farmers to send any hogs on display or in competitions directly to slaughterhouses after the show, in order to limit exposure.

Does this have anything to do with those 2012 bacon shortage rumors?

No, that was a weird thing propagated by a British group lobbying for higher wages for pig farmers.

Should I feel weird about only caring about suffering, dying piglets because it will affect my pork consumption?

Yes, probably. But we live in a cruel, sick, animal farming world, and this won't change that so there's no reason for the little pigs to die in vain.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.