A deadly hog disease is spreading rapidly in Minnesota and that has the state's $2 billion pork industry on edge.
The porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, first reported in Minnesota last May, cannot sicken humans. But the disease is shrinking herds and could result in higher pork prices at the grocery store.
In the last month, the number of cases in Minnesota increased by almost two-thirds. The disease has been found in about 300 hog barns across the state.
Concern over the virus is so high that officials at a recent state wide trade show for hog farmers took an unusual step. Technicians patrolled the Minneapolis Convention Center checking for the virus, said David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers.
"They take swabs of hard surfaces where people would gather or vehicles would gather," Preisler said.
The testing aimed to detect if the virus had hitchhiked into the meeting on the shoes or clothing of hog producers gathered at the show.
Although technicians did not find the virus at the trade show, some farms decided against sending employees to the convention as a precaution, concerned the workers might bring the virus home and infect their herd.
Preisler said talk of the disease dominated the trade show.
"Without a doubt, it was the leading topic of discussion," he said.
The virus is generating concern because it spreads so quickly. A tiny speck of manure or soil might have enough virus on it to infect a herd.
Veterinarians say the virus is largely found in hog manure, although it may also be transmitted through the air. It is extremely virulent and kills half or more of the piglets that contract the disease.
"If a pig is under seven days of age, they die," said Michael Brumm, a North Mankato-based consultant for hog farmers.
Brumm said the disease destroys the inner lining of the intestines responsible for taking up nutrients.
"And they die because the absorption functions are not developed enough in the digestive tract of that small pig to withstand the severe dehydration that occurs with the disease," he said.
There is no proven vaccine on the market to fight the disease, so farmers are concentrating on keeping the virus out of their barns, Brumm said.
It's a difficult fight against an invisible enemy. To protect their herds, farmers require visitors to wear disposable plastic booties. Hog trucks are washed to remove the bug. Any new pigs are carefully inspected before they're brought inside. A few operations restrict what employees can do off the farm.
Brumm said several hog farms have banned their employees from entering convenience stores to buy a snack, fearful that workers from a neighboring swine operation may have contaminated the floor. They worry that the virus will attach itself to the next set of footwear that steps on it.
"So your shoes are contaminated, you walk out to your truck, now your truck is contaminated," Brumm said. "And every time you get in your truck your shoes get re-contaminated."
Those precautions are rooted in the financial risk the disease poses. An individual farm hit with the virus may lose about 10 percent of the pig production expected for the year. That would lead to about four percent fewer hogs nationwide, AgStar Financial Services senior vice president Mark Greenwood said.
"We think there's probably, between 3 1/2 to 4 million pigs that will be lost through the incidence of PED," Greenwood said.
That loss of supply could help push pork prices up even faster than currently estimated. Although the disease poses no health threat to humans, fewer hogs will be coming to market.
U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers estimate a two- to three-percent rise in pork prices this year, slightly higher than the historical norm.
That may be bad news for consumers, but Greenwood said it's the one silver lining in the disease outbreak for farmers. He said the high death toll is making individual hogs more valuable at the slaughter house.
That means that even farmers with significant losses to their herds because of the virus may still be able to eke out a profit.
"They should, but they won't make as much money as what would be projected," Greenwood said. That's disappointing for the industry, because after many hog producers lost money over the past twelve months, 2014 had looked like a strong rebound.
But even those who prosper are likely facing a nerve-wracking year, wondering if the virus will arrive in their barns.