Pork producers aren’t alone in feeling the impact of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV); the feed industry is finding both its bottom line and its reputation tarnished, the latter perhaps unfairly.

Even conservative estimates project that PEDV has, at the time this is written, already taken 5 million pigs out of the normal production flow through baby pig losses. Assuming a $10-$11/head feed investment to take pigs from 12-40 lb., that’s a loss of $50 million or more in high-value gross feed sales for the feed industry to date.

However, as frustrated fingers get pointed at feed as a potential transmission link, the impact on what has mostly — up to now — been a trusting producer-supplier relationship may be even greater.

It was in this climate of growing suspicion that the National Pork Board organized a late-March joint session. The gathering brought together more than 60 stakeholders representing the U.S. and Canadian pork, feed and other allied industries — each with a dog in the PEDV hunt. Attendees included NPB; the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), which represents 575 members and 75% of the feed manufactured in the U.S.; the National Pork Producers Council; the American Association of Swine Veterinarians; the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA); the National Renderers Association; and the North American Spray Dried Blood and Plasma Producers.

“While there has been a lot of speculation raised regarding the role of feed in the spread of PEDV, particularly the use of spray-dried blood plasma in early-weaning diets, nothing to date has been definitively proven,” points out Paul Sundberg, NPB’s senior vice president of science and technology.

“The goal of the meeting was to assess what we do know to date about feed and viral diseases, and to set research priorities with all the stakeholders at the table.”

Sundberg says it quickly became clear that the focus needs to be on the entire feed system, which includes not only ingredients, but also processing and post-processing procedures.

“Feed systems include more than just feed components. We agreed there was opportunity for viral contamination in a variety of steps, from the ingredients to the farm bins.”

In the end, the top research priorities were as follows:

1. To investigate the effectiveness and cost of treatments that could be used to mitigate the survival of PEDV and other viruses in feed

2. To conduct contamination risk assessments at all steps within the feed processing and delivery chain

3. To develop a substitute for the currently used swine bioassay procedures

4. To continue to investigate the risk of feed and other pathways for pathogen entry into the U.S.

A research budget of $450,000 has been allocated. Sundberg notes that both the funding and research effort are being jointly supported by the pork checkoff and allied industry members. “It is a good collaboration,” he stresses. “These feed-related questions are both high-priority and sensitive. Together, we are going to figure this out.”

Those answers can’t come quickly enough for nutritionists like John Goihl of AgriNutrition Services, Shakopee, MN, who has been busy fielding client questions that have no clear answers.

“I’ve never spent so much time on one issue,” he says. “Those that have gotten hit by PEDV are trying to figure out where it came from; those who haven’t are awake at night wondering if they’ll be next.”

The best he can offer regarding feed’s link to the disease’s transmission is logic. Most questions involve the suspected link with porcine products used in early-wean diets. “If these products were the culprit, every feed mill — even those on-farm — should be contaminated by now,” Goihl says. “That’s obviously not the case.”

Beyond that, he notes that the combination of high-temperature processing combined with generally long post-manufacturing inventory storage periods should all but eliminate the possibility of these products being a carrier for the virus, if the temperature and storage studies are correct. “In truth,” the nutritionist points out, “the components that move quickly through the feed manufacturing inventory to the farm are primarily the grain and protein ingredients.”

That implication simply reinforces the need to look at the broader feed system. NPB’s Sundberg agrees. “If feed is a factor in the transfer of PEDV, based on past research we know that there are specific time and temperature combinations that should inactivate the virus,” he points out. “However, there are many variables that can affect feed, including post-processing contamination, which is another area that must be carefully controlled even if inactivation occurs.”

It’s no time for knee-jerk reactions, Goihl cautions. Early-wean diets can be developed without spray-dried blood plasma. “We use it because it’s a highly digestible protein that is palatable for the young pig,” the nutritionist notes. “Yes, we can replace its nutrient contributions. However, can we replace porcine plasma’s other provision — immunoglobulin?” It is that key component that provides extra antibodies at weaning when the pig’s fledgling immune system is being challenged to the max.

“While the shift back toward three-week weaning has made it a little less critical than before, it’s still something that can be important,” Goihl points out. “I sometimes wonder if producers have gotten so good at keeping these units clean that we’ve given up some natural immunity. Maybe we’re trying to raise a pig in a bubble, and we’re finding out we can’t.”

Bubble or not, the feed industry looks forward to going on the offense against PEDV in partnership with pork producers, vs. playing defense. Commenting on the joint session, David Fairfield, vice president of feed services for the NGFA, says, “This meeting illustrates the ongoing commitment that all participants in the pork industry have in eliminating PEDV.” He called the discussions “constructive and transparent,” and predicted that the research priorities “will provide important information that can be used as part of a comprehensive strategy.”

Equally important, all participating organizations committed to getting that information out to their members as it becomes available in order to help alleviate the impact of the disease on both producers and their feed suppliers.