If ever there was a cause to rally around, controlling and eliminating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) certainly leads the lists of most pork producers.

More commonly known by its simple acronym, the PRRS virus has wreaked havoc far and wide.

The cost endured by U.S. pork producers because of this disease is estimated at $600 million annually.

The U.S. pork industry has been struggling to understand this malady since it was frustratingly referred to as “Mystery Swine Disease,” about 15 years ago.

A rallying cry to regroup, and hopefully develop a program to corral PRRS, came during a World Pork Expo press conference called to announce the checkoff-funded support of “an initiative to understand, control and potentially eliminate PRRS — the most economically significant disease to America's pork producers today.”

The new push reinforced some marching orders from the Pork Board's Swine Health Committee in 2002, which directed the board to “increase the sense of urgency among those involved in control strategies, elimination techniques, vaccine development and basic science research with PRRS virus.”

I wholeheartedly support this redoubled effort to solve the PRRS puzzle. Coordinating PRRS-related research under a global umbrella makes sense. The higher profile should attract major funding critical to unlocking the mysteries of this pesky virus.

Additional funding will be sought through federal agencies and competitive grants.

Past Disease Challenges

The U.S. pork industry has tackled tough challenges before — hog cholera and pseudorabies (PRV), for example. PRRS could prove a tougher adversary.

Sixteen years passed from the time the hog cholera eradication program was launched in 1962 until the U.S. was declared hog-cholera-free.

PRV was discovered in the U.S. in the early '60s. Now, after 14 years of the national pseudorabies five-stage eradication program, we're edging ever closer to a national PRV-free status.

PRRS, a totally different, more complex virus with an uncanny knack for mutating, is sure to take longer. The PRRS initiative has set a 10-15 year target, the total cost estimated at $10-15 million.

The $600 million annual cost of the disease is based on a literature review that puts the cost of a grow-finish outbreak at between $6 and $15/head. The cost in a breeding herd is estimated at $200-$500/sow.

Since 1990, the National Pork Board estimates they've spent $2 million on PRRS research. That's a fair chunk of change, but if you break it down, it's only $153,846 per year to solve a $600-million problem.

Granted, state and federal funds have supported additional research, but it's high time to put a chokehold on this profit-robber.

Checkoff Priorities

Deciding where checkoff dollars should be spent is a tough job. The process is managed, with producer input, through various committees in seven broad funding areas of the National Pork Board budget.

Historically, the lion's share of checkoff dollars is allocated to the budget's demand enhancement component.

In 1987, when the “Pork. The Other White Meat” campaign was launched, significant checkoff dollars served to reposition pork in the minds of American consumers through demand enhancement program areas. Surveys in recent years have shown that “Pork. The Other White Meat” ranks in the top five of America's most memorable advertising slogans. Nine out of 10 people recognize pork as “the other white meat” today. Mission accomplished.

Still, roughly 60% of the $40.4 million budget for 2003, as reported to delegates at Pork Forum in March, is allocated to consumer and retail advertising, foodservice, consumer information and foreign market development — the major areas under demand enhancement.

Meanwhile, Science and Technology programs received a mere $3.6 million; from that, $1.2 million was earmarked for swine health programs, including $144,755 in PRRS research funding.

Despite the Swine Health Committee's 2002 appeal to “increase the sense of urgency” for programs seeking PRRS solutions, the 2003 budget fell $9,000 short of a 13-year average allocation targeting PRRS.

That leaves me wondering if $2 or $3 million, or more, of the demand enhancement's budget would be better spent on PRRS research. It would take a pretty spectacular demand enhancement promotion program to overcome the $6 to $15 per head losses incurred by producers hit with PRRS.

I'll admit, I've often thought a greater proportion of checkoff dollars should be allocated to production-based research. For the PRRS initiative to succeed, pork producers may have to pony-up more checkoff dollars before this $600-million gorilla is wrestled into submission.