U.S. Pork Industry Faces Real Disease Risk

The odds of avoiding a foreign animal disease are stacked against the highly mobile U.S. pork industry. A breach in biosecurity could produce an outbreak that goes undiagnosed and spreads.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could cost the U.S. billions of dollars in the first year.

Take high pig density, add zero immunity to foreign animal diseases and mix in pig mobility and you've got the perfect recipe for disaster.

That's the status of the vast U.S. pork industry, which markets more than 100 million hogs annually, proclaims Lake City, IA, swine veterinarian Paul Armbrecht. The pig population is concentrated in areas, moves readily and is highly susceptible to foreign diseases, he says.

Armbrecht's home state of Iowa, for example, imports nearly a million pigs each month. Another million pigs move intrastate every month. If a foreign disease hit, the risk is amplified because of this pig movement.

Concerns about that real risk led Armbrecht to volunteer to attend foreign animal disease training school last year at USDA's Plum Island Animal Disease Center facility at Plum Island, NY. He reports researchers at the facility have no inkling of how susceptible the pork industry is to a potential outbreak.

“While many of us realize that 5-7% mortality is common in finishers, and many pigs do not have direct veterinary care, these personnel believe that diagnostics are done frequently on any death,” points out Armbrecht.

He declares: “The risk of foreign animal disease coming into the U.S. is real. We must all cooperate to understand the importance of recognizing unusual health issues, getting tissues to appropriate laboratories and involving the appropriate authorities in a timely manner.”

Unlike most practicing swine veterinarians today, 54-year-old Armbrecht has experienced hog cholera, which was eradicated from the U.S. in 1978.

“Hog cholera is the scariest of the foreign animal diseases to me because of the structure of our pig industry today,” he says.

A growing number of pig care workers come from parts of Mexico where hog cholera still exists. Heightening his concerns is the idea that these workers bring in sausage sandwiches, some of which may get fed to a favorite boar where they work.

Part of Armbrecht's training at Plum Island was to infect hogs with hog cholera and observe their reaction.

“Only one of 24 pigs infected with the virus had visible lesions. The rest just had a fever. From the few visible signs, these pigs could have been infected with paramyxovirus (Blue Eye disease found in Mexico), salmonella, swine influenza virus, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome or circovirus,” he says.

Similarly, other foreign animal diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) or African Swine Fever, can appear non-clinical, he says.

Foreign Disease Awareness

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) recently mailed a new, 15-minute foreign animal disease awareness video to more than 1,200 members of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, says Beth Lautner, DVM, vice president, Science and Technology, NPPC.

The video depicts what the federal government is currently doing and how it would respond to an outbreak and biosecurity breaches on farms. The video can be ordered from NPPC for $15 by calling (515) 223-2600. Veterinarians also were sent fact sheets on FMD and were provided various Web site addresses for more information.

Lautner has served on the secretary of agriculture's advisory committee on foreign animal and poultry diseases and is a member of a USDA steering committee on animal disease emergencies. She also has participated with select pork producers in test exercises for FMD and hog cholera.

Recently she was involved in a mock FMD exercise with officials of the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

The simulation involved spread from a southern U.S. pig herd to cattle through animal and people movements. The scenario seemed eerily similar to the FMD outbreak now playing out in Europe.

“It's like waging war,” recalls Lautner. “You're fighting a virus that is very formidable.” The health damages were placed at $50 million per infected county, she reports.

U.S. Safeguards

Lautner is confident that U.S. producers are reviewing their biosecurity programs in light of current events.

“I think our industry is a little different (than other livestock industries) in that our pork producers have always had concerns about biosecurity to keep from tracking in TGE (Transmissible gastroenteritis) or bloody scours,” she says. “We have known those were diseases that people could track in on their shoes.”

Several new points on foreign animal diseases will be included in the next revision of the NPPC's Pork Quality Assurance program, says Lautner.