By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News
Stafford County hog farmer Scott Pfortmiller stresses that your pork chop always has been - and always will be - safe to eat.
However, worry is mounting inside the nation's hog barns as a new swine virus continues to spread.
Sixteen states have now reported the new swine virus, called Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus, including Kansas. And it's spreading fast.
For Pfortmiller, the fear is the potential for a significant economic impact throughout the industry. It's already hit at least two Kansas hog operations, including Seaboard Farms, located in the southwest corner of Kansas.
There are a lot of unknowns, after all, regarding PEDV, which entered the United States for the first time only in the past few months and could have huge economic impacts to those whose barns are hit with the train.
For starters, no one knows exactly how it arrived here or how it spreads.
What researchers do know is that while sows can recover in just a day or two from the virus, the severe form of diarrhea is deadly to piglets.
Pfortmiller and his family have a farrowing operation near St. John, which provides females to finishing hog operations. Already the family operation has stringent biosecurity, such as showering in and out of the facility, not allowing commercial trucks into the unit, and processing their own feed. Moreover, their truck driver has a dedicated trailer used for hauling the operation's livestock.
Still, Pfortmiller said, after sitting through a Kansas Pork Association meeting Monday where he learned more about he virus, he already has ideas on how to make the operation even tighter.
"It just makes you think harder about what we are doing and is there anything we can do better," he said.
So far, 331 cases have been reported in 16 states, including 11 in Kansas, according to a report prepared by the National Animal Health Laboratories Network. A handful of laboratories, including Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Manhattan, received some of a $450,000 allocation from the National Pork Board's check-off program to help get answers.
Dick Hesse, director of diagnostic virology at K-State, said research would begin Monday, with scientists inoculating four-week-old pigs. K-State is among three U.S. universities, along with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that are working to pinpoint where the virus came from and how it spreads.
Hesse said K-State sequenced the entire genome of the virus, and it is largely connected to a strain circulating in China. While there are few cases in Kansas, "in the states that have it, it seems to be moving, and that is obviously a concern," he said.
Moreover, he added, the virus' worst season is yet to come.
"It tends to be a seasonal virus with late winter, fall, being the worst time," said Hesse. "We are all kind of bracing for what the winter might bring and get as much research done before that as we can."
If there is a positive in the whole thing, it's that a hog facility can recover. Some disease outbreaks can cause an operator to have to sell all his livestock to curb the issue, said Tim Stroda, executive director of the Kansas Pork Association.
After a barn is cleaned and disinfected, the sows develop immunity and recover. They can come back to the barns "without having to sell off the whole farm," Stroda said.
According to Stroda, the first cases emerged in April. He learned of the Kansas cases just a few weeks ago.
He said it was first thought the virus moved with manure. However, hog barns 20 to 30 miles apart are getting it.
"This is one that has kind of left (the industry) scratching their head a bit," said Stroda.
He did stress that the virus does not affect people and is not a food-safety issue. It also is not a trade-restrictive disease.
Kansas Animal Health Commissioner Bill Brown said he was aware of the Seaboard Farms case. However, with the virus not being a reportable virus, it is difficult to track.
At present, his agency's job is communicative. He said he is involved in a conference call with USDA and state veterinarians twice a week - something he has been doing since June.
"They are trying to do a lot of detective work, looking at everything - the whole scope - and trying to figure out where this virus came from and where it is spread," Brown said. "We just don't have the answers yet."
He said he didn't have too much concern about the upcoming fair season, which means 4-H'ers and others bringing their hogs to county fair barns across Kansas. Those hogs are older and swine influenza is still the biggest disease factor, Brown said.