BANFF — Alberta’s swine industry is shoring up its defences after news that a deadly virus has made its way from the United States into an Ontario hog barn.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), not transmissible to humans but lethal to baby pigs, has struck more than one-third of the sow barns and killed four per cent of the nursing piglets in the U.S. since the first case was confirmed last summer.
The question about how long it could be kept out of Canada was answered at the Banff Centre on Thursday afternoon. More than 500 farmers, truckers, packers and veterinarians from across the continent had gathered there for the final session of an annual conference dealing with industry issues, including discussions of how to keep PED out and what to do if an outbreak were to occur.
The shock went through the room like a lightning bolt as people started receiving word that the dreaded disease had been confirmed on an Ontario farm, said Don Brookbank, procurement manager at the Olymel pork processing plant in Red Deer.
At this point, Olymel has not had to take any special precautions or change any of the practices at its loading dock, Brookbank said outside the meeting. That will change if there is evidence that the disease has started to move toward Alberta, he said.
“The key break has to be transport trucks going to farms. That’s critical to producers — proper cleaning, drying, disinfecting,” said Brookbank.
“We have a plan in place. We’re ready to do what we can, and we will do everything we can to do our part.”
Daryl Toews, Alberta regional manager for Steve’s Livestock Transport, said his company is doing everything possible to keep its trucks from shipping the virus to the farms they serve. A drying bay was added to its wash facilities about a year ago so trucks and trailers can be cleaned, disinfected and then thoroughly dried between loads.
“We’ve done a lot of training of our drivers, giving them proper instruction about biosecurity and proper footwear to help break the chain of the disease.
Toews said his company has done everything it knows and will change practices and add new procedures if required.
Veterinarian Julia Keenliside, a specialist with the provincial government, said Alberta declared PED a reportable disease earlier in the week, meaning all confirmed and suspected cases must be reported immediately. Money has been made ready so farmers can get free lab tests if suspicious symptoms show up in their barns and to cover the first visit from their veterinarians.
Working with Alberta Pork, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has the capacity to trace out and track back to find all potential points of contact if evidence of the virus does show up here, said Keenliside.
A communications system has been set up to ensure that updates are shared as they come available and all farmers are being asked to speak up immediately if they see signs of trouble in their barns, she said.
Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director for Alberta Pork, said his group has great biosecurity procedures in place and has been encouraging producers to maintain their vigilance, keep their trucks clean and be watchful of the units coming to their farms.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea — a member of the corona family of viruses — is widespread in Europe and China but was not seen in North America until last summer, when the first cases started to show up on farms in the United States.
North American pigs are highly susceptible to the virus because their immune systems have not had to deal with it in the past.
The disease is not transferred directly from animal to animal, nor is it transmissible to humans.
In a bulletin released earlier this week, Alberta Pork describes PED as a virus causing severe diarrhea and death in suckling pigs and milder diarrhea in older animals. One hundred per cent of infected piglets will die at three to five weeks of age, says the bulletin.
Pigs become infected by eating contaminated feed, with the virus transmitted by pregnant sows to their unborn piglets.
By Wednesday afternoon, U.S. farmers had lost four per cent of their piglets to the disease and the numbers were climbing.
U.S.-based economist Steve Meyers estimates that those losses would be felt about six months from an outbreak, when there would be a gap in the number of pigs available for market.
While the effects have been devastating in the short term, the loss of supply may mean improvements in prices for farmers whose barns are not affected, Meyers said during a meeting with producers in Banff on Thursday.
Ontario veterinarian Doug MacDougald said the key direction for Canadians is to keep the disease contained while continuing to work on strategies already being developed to deal with those farms that are affected.
“It may be acting like a super virus, but folks it’s not. We know if it’s handled right in most situations, the track record is sow herds can eliminate this in 90 to 100 days,” MacDougald told producers and other industry leaders during the 2014 Banff Pork Seminar on Thursday.