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100k pigs dying each week as virus plagues industry

The bodies are piling up fast.

A deadly virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PEDv, is estimated to have killed, on average, more than 100,000 piglets and young hogs each week since it first showed up in Iowa in May 2013, wreaking havoc on the pork industry.

The number of hogs slaughtered this year is down 4.2 percent, according to the United States Agriculture Department, to roughly 50 million from more than 52 million in the same period in 2013.

That drop drove up the price of bacon and center-cut pork chops sold in the United States by more than 12 percent in May, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices for bacon rose more than 15 percent, and pork chops were up almost 13 percent.

"I've been a vet since 1981, and there is no precedent for this," said Paul Sundberg, vice president for science and technology at the National Pork Board. "It is devastatingly virulent."

A swine virus appeared in the United States last spring in Ohio and in weeks had spread to four more states. How it entered the country is unknown.Hog Farms Battling to Contain Deadly VirusAUG. 4, 2013

Getty Images

The fatality numbers are so staggering that environmentalists have grown worried about the effects of state laws requiring the burial of so many carcasses, and what that will do to the groundwater.

"We know there is a lot of mortality from this disease, and we're seeing evidence of burial in areas with shallow groundwater that a lot of people rely on for drinking water and recreation," said Kelly Foster, senior lawyer at the Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental group.

Waterkeeper has asked the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to put a mass disposal plan into effect, and wants it to declare a state of emergency. On its website and YouTube, the organization has posted photos of dead piglets barely covered with earth and boxes overflowing with the bodies of young pigs, although it is unclear whether all were victims of the virus.

Steven W. Troxler, the state's agricultural commissioner, has so far declined to seek an emergency declaration, saying in a letter to Waterkeeper that he thought existing disposal systems, including composting and the shipping of carcasses to rendering facilities, were up to the challenge. "We are not aware of any published scientific data that indicates any groundwater contamination as a result of PEDv," according to the letter, which Mr. Troxler wrote in March.

Some of the huge hog operations in North Carolina have become ensnared in disputes over aerial photographing of farms, some of it unrelated to the spread of the virus, and industry officials have expressed concerns about the practice as well.

Three state lawmakers had proposed a bill that effectively would require state agencies to keep under lock and key any aerial photographs of agricultural operations that include global positioning coordinates. The move echoed an effort by United States Senator Mike Johanns, Republican of Nebraska, to impose a yearlong moratorium on the Environmental Protection Agency's taking of aerial photographs of cattle feedlots and farming operations to monitor compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Mr. Johanns's amendment, attached to a recent appropriations bill, was altered to require the E.P.A. to give the Senate more information about its aerial photography program.

Last summer, George Steinmetz, a photographer working for National Geographic, was arrested in Kansas under the state's "ag gag" law after using a paraglider to take photographs of cattle feedlots and other agricultural operations for an article on the food industry.

Precisely how many pigs have died from the virus, which causes acute diarrhea that is virtually 100 percent lethal for piglets two to three weeks old, is unknown. The Agriculture Department did not require reporting of the disease until June 5, and it does not collect data on how many pigs the virus has killed, instead referring the question to the hog industry — which does not like to talk about it.

The National Pork Producers Council does not have a figure of its own but said it had heard that about eight million pigs had died of PEDv so far.

The U.S.D.A. said that as of May 28, nearly 7,000 samples submitted from 30 states to labs tested positive for the virus. Since May, there have been reports of pigs afflicted with the virus in a 31st state. "We do know that it is a particularly persistent virus, and it can survive long periods in less-than-ideal environments," Joelle Hayden, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently pledged $26.2 million for a variety of efforts to fight the virus, including development of a vaccine. The largest amount, $11.1 million, is to be allocated to helping hog producers with infected herds enhance their biosecurity practices.

The money is badly needed. In an illustration of how indiscriminate the disease is, the virus was found in Vermont in March on a traditional farm with a small drift of pigs raised largely on pasture. "I was not as surprised as one might think," said Dr. Kristin Haas, the state veterinarian. "Even though in Vermont and most of the Northeast we don't have the same type of commercial swine operations that you find in Iowa and North Carolina, there is still a tremendous amount of livestock moving in and out of the state."

Michael Yezzi, proprietor of Flying Pigs Farm just across the border in New York State, said farmers suspected that the virus arrived on a truck from Pennsylvania. "It's a very big concern because we have young stock on the farm, piglets born on the farm and piglets brought in from regional breeders," Mr. Yezzi said. "We have to make sure the farms we're working with don't have it, because it's going to kill everything under a certain age.

"Nobody wants to lose 10 to 20 percent of their yearly supply of pigs, whether that would be 150 for someone like me or 15,000 for someone in Iowa."

Prevention is no mean feat. At the Hord Livestock Company in north-central Ohio, for instance, trucks returning from feed deliveries are cleaned and disinfected and then the trailers are baked to 160 degrees for 10 minutes. Drivers wear disposable bootees, and farm supervisors are not allowed to travel between Hord's farms.

And yet the company has just finished the four- to five-month process of eliminating the virus from one of its farms and is working to disinfect another and build up its sows' immunity so they can pass it on to their piglets in their colostrum. The two farms had different strains of the virus, one more deadly than the other.

On average, more than 100,000 piglets and young hogs have been killed each week by the virus, which first showed up in Iowa in 2013. Credit Lane Hickenbottom/Reuters

Pat Hord, whose family owns the business, would not say how many of its animals died from PEDv. "Even though the economic hit is definitely significant, it's probably the emotional side that's the worst of it for me and my family and the team here," Mr. Hord said. "All we do every day is take care of the animals the best that we can, but there's nothing you can do for them when this disease hits — it's out of your control."

The Hords, who also raise cattle, use composting to dispose of animal carcasses, laying dead animals on a concrete slab, mixing in sawdust and rotating the mixture as it decomposes to aerate it. Mr. Hord said disposal of the increased number of dead pigs had not been a particular problem. "The good news, if there is any in this," he said, "is that baby pigs are very small."

Waterkeeper, however, says that the sheer volume of dead animals poses an environmental threat.

"They're very secretive about how many pigs have died in North Carolina, but we estimate that it's about two million over the last year or so," said Rick Dove, a retired Marine Corps lawyer who has taken aerial photos of pig farms for Waterkeeper's North Carolina affiliate. "They can't move those pigs off the farm because it will spread disease, so they're being buried in ground along the coastal waterways where the groundwater level is high."

State regulation requires the bodies to be buried at least two feet underground, which in many places means the dead pigs come into contact with groundwater, Mr. Dove said.

The virus does not infect humans. As the corpses decompose, however, they can become hosts for bacteria and other pathogens.

Each state has its own requirements for the disposal of carcasses. Iowa, one of the largest hog-producing states, has a set of disposal methods for use during emergency disease outbreaks. They range from burial and rendering to use of alkaline hydrolysis, a highly specialized process using chemicals and heat to break down tissues.

An Iowa State University publication describing various processes for disposing of carcasses during an epidemic estimated that it would take a pit six feet deep, 300 feet long and 10 feet wide to hold 2,100 pigs, and the pit would need to be covered with three to six feet of dirt in a site marked by GPS coordinates and regularly inspected.

North Carolina issued a warning to a pig operation for having an open burial pit on its property, Ms. Foster, the Waterkeeper lawyer, said. The organization brought the issue, which it documented with aerial photos of the farm, to the attention of the state agriculture department.

The North Carolina Farm Bureau contends that such photographs create unnecessary expenses for its members. "Third parties are making complaints to environmental regulators, and using aerial photography to document what they say are violations," said Paul Sherman, director of the farm bureau's air and energy programs. "The vast majority of those cases are unfounded, but farmers still have to deal with it, it eats up a good part of a day or two and often the same complaints come up multiple times."

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