Tracking A Farm Virus

Searching for Clues to a Virulent Virus that Changed America’s Hog Industry

In the spring of 2013, hundreds of baby pigs were dying off and nobody knew what was making them so sick.

As a deadly virus hopscotched across farms, researchers went to work as disease detectives, hoping to contain, identify and track the cause.

The virus was identified as Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea, never before seen in the U.S. It killed millions of piglets, cost the pork industry roughly $1 billion and sent prices at the grocery store soaring.

Harvest Public Media spent months examining PED’s outbreak, piecing together interviews, government reports and public documents.

What we found is an intriguing international mystery about an emerging virus so virulent it could withstand the rough ride from China to the States, possibly by latching onto a common cargo container. We also found an industry struggling to prepare for PED to possibly decimate the industry a second time.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media file photo

Animal feed mixed from ingredients sourced around the world could be carrying more than the vitamins and nutrients livestock need. Seven different viruses that could cause widespread illness and big economic losses for meat producers in the United States can survive in certain imported feed products.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

One of the ways researchers study and try to contain outbreaks is by tracing the virus’ path. But that was especially confusing with the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, or PED.

The Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Iowa State University first identified PED in the U.S. in May 2013. Then, they went back to samples from hog farms they had in storage and were able to track the virus back to an Ohio farm in April 2013.

Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media

A fast-spreading virus never before seen in the United States hit the pork industry more than two years ago, racking up roughly $1 billion in losses and spiking prices for consumers.

While researchers are still trying to track the culprit, it appears to be an intrepid world traveler that may have been delivered directly to farmers’ barn doors, creating an intriguing international back story traced to China.

Pipestone Veterinary Services

Veterinarian and researcher Scott Dee doesn’t much look the part of a detective, in his jeans and company polo shirt.

But when a virus never before seen in North America swept through the network of hog farms where he works, Pipestone Veterinary Services, in January 2014, he had his first clue.

“These farms had the same pattern of infection,” Dee said.