A few days ago I mentioned that 2014 was the most profitable year ever for industrial pork producers, thanks primarily to lower feed and fuel costs, and a booming export market. At the beginning of last year, however, that would result would have seemed highly unlikely.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV) arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and took a heavy toll. Approximately 7 million pigs died from the effects of the virus in the U.S. during 2013 and 2014.
The virus leads to vomiting and severe diarrhea and it is deadly to piglets. 50-100 percent of infected piglets die. Adult animals infected by the virus generally survive their illness.
The virus, which was already present in Asia and Europe before appearing in the U.S., has now been identified in 33 states, having arrived most recently in Hawaii. So far researchers have been unable to determine how it spreads.
According to the USDA, pigs exposed to and infected by PEDV are still safe for human consumption. So it hasn’t been as devastating to the industry as it might otherwise have been. Still, the virus killed about 5% of the pigs in the U.S. last year.
Even with that kind of mortality, the industry was still able to generate record profits.
Whether they will be able to haul in profits like that again in 2015 remains to be seen of course. Just as vaccines were rolling out to treat the virus, a third mutated strain was discovered this month which isn’t affected by the vaccines.
According to one article I read, the industrial producers are increasing herd size in anticipation of more losses. Of course that means they’re counting on millions of dead piglets and “risking” oversupply (and lower prices for their products) if that doesn’t happen. As one industry analyst says, “If producers overbreed to compensate for 6% death loss and don’t have it, we’ll have 6% more pigs.” When I read statements like that, I never get a sense that they’re talking about living creatures.