Since 1972, pork producers have gathered in Banff, Alberta to discuss their industry from its technology to its economics. This year there was an air of concern surrounding the event after the announcement that PED had been discovered in the province in early January. Genome Alberta has helped fund PED research in the past and to date there is still no approved vaccine for the virus. Our livestock blogger Geoff Geddes was at the annual Banff Pork Seminar and prepared a special report for us.
Albertans are quick to offer visitors a warm welcome, but they gave PED the cold shoulder when it arrived last week. News that the first-ever reported case of PED in the province was detected at a 400-head farrow-to-finish hog operation in central Alberta sent a chill up the collective spines of producers, and for good reason.
Since arriving in North America in 2013, PED has killed millions of pigs by infecting the cells lining the small intestine. It is generally considered fatal among pigs less than 10 days of age, as they lack the ability to fight the virus and absorb nutrients. Symptoms in sows include loose feces or not eating, while piglets will be dehydrated and have watery diarrhea.
“We got the call Monday morning, January 7,” said Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director of Alberta Pork. “A producer saw something different in their operation the previous week and called the herd vet out, who sent samples to the lab which tested positive for PED.”
The affected farm stopped shipping animals immediately and has been very cooperative with industry and government as they seek to find the source of the disease. In the meantime, the producer is trying to stay calm and hope for the best, which is easier said than done.
“It’s such a heart-breaking disease,” said Dr. Egan Brockhoff, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine - Partner at Prairie Swine Health Services in Red Deer and a leading authority on PED. “It’s terrible for the pigs and for the family.”
While the virus is not transmittable to humans and carries no food safety risks associated with infected animals, the outbreak could be devastating for Alberta's pork industry if not contained.
“Right now it’s about communication, trace-back and containment,” said Dr. Brockhoff. “We need to look at where all the touch points have been for that farm in the last two weeks, and containment is critical so the virus doesn’t leave the farm.”
Though concern is high in the industry, there is reason for optimism.
“We’ve been working crazy hard on biosecurity since 2010 in this province,” said Brockhoff. “Producers know what to do; the sector knows what to do, so we’re going to solve it. Because the site is relatively isolated, I don’t think we’ll see the area spread that we saw in Manitoba.”
There is no vaccine to inoculate against PED. Feeding sows the feces of infected piglets — a makeshift form of immunization — is one of the few ways producers can slow the spread of the deadly virus.
“The goal now is to get the farm weaning negative pigs as soon as possible and minimize exposure to everyone else in the community,” said Brockhoff. “We’ll know within a week if the virus is moving.”
As an organization, Alberta Pork has been preaching biosecurity for years, and producers appear to have listened.
“Our biosecurity protocols kept PED out of Alberta from when it arrived in Ontario in 2014 until today,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s a testament to producers, truckers, processors and the wash industry. We really appreciate the vets in Alberta and western Canada who are sending out information to their clients and providing a list of reminders around biosecurity.”
Another concern surrounds the infected manure on the farm and having to deal with it in the spring. How do you clean out the barn and look after a potential problem that could arise in the future?
“We have to draw on practices and protocols that we saw in Manitoba last year to help us through this,” said Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, limiting the damage from PED could come down to doing what Alberta producers do best: working together.
“I’m hearing a lot of concern and empathy for the producer affected, and people saying they want to do everything they can to support eradication,” said Brockhoff. “If everyone just sharpens their pencils a bit and steps up, I think we can contain this virus.”