A devastating virus that has killed millions of piglets across the country and caused a spike in pork prices now is disrupting one of summer’s most beloved annual events: the California State Fair.
The State Fair, which opens Friday, will shut down its popular piglet exhibit this year and step up veterinary inspections of adult pigs in response to a viral epidemic that has affected 5,000 farms and killed more than 8 million piglets.
County and state fairs across the country are taking similar precautions as farmers struggle to manage the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus, or PED, which is believed to have originated in China and was discovered in the United States in May of last year.
The disease, spread through fecal matter, attacks the lining of the intestines and causes severe diarrhea. It does not affect humans or other animals, and it does not endanger consumers of pork, according to veterinary specialists.
But it has caused crushing losses to farms across the country, particularly in the Midwest, said Dave Warner of the National Pork Producers Council. At least 27 states, including California, have been affected. As a result, pork prices are on the rise. Pork prices in stores have risen by almost 10 percent in the past year, according to the USDA, and Warner said they are likely to climb further.
“By August or September, we will probably see a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction” in animals to be slaughtered compared to 2013, he said. “So you’re probably going to see a significant increase in prices at the retail level.”
Although PED affects all ages of swine, it is nearly 100 percent fatal in piglets less than 10 days old because their immune systems are incapable of fighting off the virus and they quickly become dehydrated. No proven vaccine exists to fend off the virus.
The USDA in June issued a federal order requiring pork producers and veterinarians to report all cases of PED to that agency and state animal health officials, and to develop a plan to prevent the disease’s spread. The federal agency committed $26.2 million to combat PED.
PED was first reported in California in December, and at least 11 farms in the state have reported outbreaks, said Lesa Eidman, executive director of the California Pork Producers Association.
“It is a disease of epidemic proportions, and it is a new disease to the United States, so herd immunity is low,” said Joan Dean Rowe, a UC Davis large animal veterinarian and faculty coordinator for the State Fair’s livestock nursery.
Fairs can be efficient vehicles for spreading the virus because animals from many different farms live together in close quarters for days or weeks at a time. For that reason, agricultural officials have issued recommendations this year for handling and displaying pigs during fair events. Exhibitors have been warned to pay extra attention to cleanliness of vehicles, clothes and equipment.
The California State Fair will be heeding those recommendations, said programs coordinator Carrie Wright. The fair’s livestock nursery typically features live births of piglets, as well as displays showcasing sows and their babies, but will scuttle that exhibit this year, Wright said.
“It’s not likely that we would have an issue here with our piglets,” Wright said. “But on the off chance that an adult pig could bring it in, we have decided not to have baby piglets this year.”
Instead, the nursery will feature an empty farrowing crate where pigs typically give birth, information about the birthing process and educational materials about PED. Staff members are prepared to answer questions about the virus, she said.
“We’re expecting to get a lot of questions as to why baby piglets are not here this year, so we will be ready,” Wright said.
The nursery will continue to feature live births of other animals, including goats and sheep, she said. Adult pigs will remain in competition at the fair, but a veterinarian will inspect them when they arrive and they will receive daily health checks, Rowe said. Although infected animals could transmit microscopic amounts of the virus to others, adult animals typically recover from the disease within a week or so, she said.
“Can I absolutely say that there is no risk from bringing in adult pigs? No,” Wright said. But the vigilance of fair officials, veterinarians and exhibitors should ensure the safety of all the animals, she said.
Martin Smith, who works in the UC Davis cooperative extension office and develops educational materials for 4-H, said young people showing pigs at this year’s State Fair likely will be more concerned than usual about “biosecurity” practices in light of the PED crisis.
“Monitoring the food and water to make sure they are clean, monitoring the bedding, making sure tools are sanitized, wearing boots and clothing specifically dedicated to the barn,” Smith said. “And lots of handwashing. All of these things help reduce chances of transmitting disease.”
The epidemic has prompted changes at some of the nation’s most grandiose fairs. The Great New York State Fair announced last month that it was suspending its sow and piglet exhibition for 2014. The 2014 State Fair of West Virginia has recommended that all hogs go directly to slaughter following the fair, eliminating the risk of pigs contracting the virus at the event and bringing the infection back to piglets at their home farms. A few county fairs have canceled all swine shows for the year.
Not everyone is unhappy about the fact that crowd-pleasing piglets will be absent from many fairs this summer. Animal welfare activists, including those in California, have been pushing for elimination of “live birthing” exhibits for years.
They argue that transporting pregnant animals and having them give birth before riveted fairgoers is stressful for the creatures and risky to the public. At least a few people are expected to protest that practice, as well as the fair’s tradition of giving away live animals such as goldfish as prizes, at the fair this weekend.
“The California State Fair is making some positive changes this year, but for the wrong reasons,” said Eric Mills of Action for Animals, based in Oakland. “Sure, the public needs to see animals. But not in this way. The animals deserve better.”
Jennifer Fearing of the Humane Society of the United States agreed.
“This is not a victory for us,” she said. “A victory would be for the fair to stop bringing in heavily pregnant animals, transported in stressful conditions, to spend their last days of pregnancy under fireworks and the constant eye of children drinking Slurpees. We can easily find another way to tell the story about the ‘miracle of birth’ without abusing the animals.”