The USDA has conditionally approved a vaccine intended to control the spread of a virus that’s been devastating the American pork industry. The vaccine is good news for the nation’s pig farmers, who have reportedly lost 8 million pigs to the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, or PED virus. The virus, which causes dehydration, affects pigs of all ages, but is almost always fatal in young piglets.
Hog farming in Indiana, one of the nationa’s largest pork producers, is a billion-dollar industry. Indiana Pork Executive Director Josh Trenary says the disease has hit producers hard.
“The death loss and the constant cleaning and dealing with that disease has caused a lot of morale issues on the farms for a lot of the employees that have to deal with this over the long-term,” he says.
The PED virus doesn’t contaminate food or otherwise affect humans, but it has increased pork prices.
According to the USDA, the US hog inventory is down 5 percent since last year, and prices farmers are getting for pork has skyrocketed more than ten percent in the same time period.
Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue, says consumers are feeling that cost at the checkout line.
“We’re seeing an impact over on the consumer pork side at the grocery store price,” he says. “We’re seeing prices there about 10 to 12 percent higher.”
Hurt says the increasing demand for pork exports and the rising cost of beef has increased demand for pork. That, along with the PED virus, has caused prices to jump.
Last month, the USDA issued a conditional permit for the PED vaccine. Generally, the USDA only issues conditional approval to drugs required to meet an unmet or emergency need.
The vaccine is the first of its kind and will be directly available to swine farmers and vets.
Agricultural experts say the vaccine is a welcome development, but is still so new there isn’t much evidence yet of its efficacy. According to the USDA, preliminary results have been promising, but there’s no guarantee about how well the vaccine will work outside of a research environment.
“Research is still being done to see what the true expectations will be,” says Lisa Becton, director of swine health information and research at the National Pork Board.
“With any kind of disease like PED, it’s been notoriously hard to build really long-term and true immunity to the disease other than having natural exposure,” she continues.
Hurt says the vaccine doesn’t cause total immunity in all animals, but it does “enhance” immunity in most pigs.
“Enhancement of immunity hopefully means if a herd gets the disease, the death loss will not be so large,” he says.
David Hamilton contributed to this report.