A virus that has devastated piglets for nearly a year is causing lower pork supplies.
Farmer Phil Borgic of Nokomis, Ill., knows firsthand what happens when porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED), virus infects a hog barn. He walked through one in late January, pointing out the differences among litters.
“This is a PED litter. See how dirty they are?” he said, pointing to a sow whose little piglets had dirty hooves.
A couple of dead piglets, PED victims, waited to be removed from the pen. When suckling piglets contract the disease, they die from dehydration because their bodies can’t recover from the vomiting and diarrhea it causes. Borgic estimates the outbreak in his barns killed about eight percent of his expected annual total.
In other pens on Borgic’s farm, the scene was quite different.
“These two litters here are very clean. See how clean looking they are?” he said, indicating robust little animals with cheery pink hides and ears as floppy as the characters of a picture book. “These are really healthy pigs.”
Today, Borgic says his operation is free of PED. But since last spring producers in at least 25 states and three Canadian provinces have been battling PED outbreaks. That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered its pork projections for this year and hog prices recently reached a record high.
Pork is popular in the spring, with Easter ham sales, and in early summer, thanks to the opening of barbecue season.
“Demand is ramping up here,” said Iowa State University livestock economist Lee Schulz. “With tighter supplies, I think that's kind of being reflected in the higher prices that we are seeing.”
Now, don’t go hoarding bacon. Schulz says there are factors controlling how high the prices will go. For one, pigs are arriving at market heavier.
“You're having larger hams, larger loins, larger chops,” Schulz said, “and so you're really increasing that volume of lean product available. And so that's how it mitigates some of the lost supplies that we’re having.”
And consumer response matters. Price-conscious buyers may shy away when the price goes up, lowering demand. Plus, suppliers have lots of frozen bacon in storage this year. Steve Meyer, an economist who consults with the National Pork Board, says many meatpackers got caught last summer paying steep prices for pork bellies—that’s what bacon is made from— so they planned ahead for this year. It’s a convenient coincidence in a time of tight supplies.
“Bellies in frozen inventory, as of the end of January, were substantially [higher], almost double where they were a year ago,” Meyer said.
Still, those inventories will only go so far. Meyer says some packing plants have already reduced working hours and output because PED has disrupted the supply of hogs. His math indicates the number of hogs brought to market in August could be down more than 10 percent from last year. And that means Meyer can confirm the fear of many U.S. eaters:
“Bacon's going to be expensive,” he said.
Of course, higher prices will help producers who can get hogs to market. Borgic, the Illinois farmer, says he may recover some of his losses.
“On the pigs that we do have to sell, we are looking at potential for record profits,” Borgic said.
But he and other farmers have to remain vigilant if they want to capitalize. Borgic says being prepared and identifying the virus quickly helped him save some pigs and prevent a spread from his farm to his neighbors’ operations.
A hot summer could help kill the virus, which seems to thrive in cooler temperatures. But there are multiple strains of PED circulating in North America and there’s still no effective vaccine.
Maybe a few pounds of bacon in the freezer isn’t such a bad idea.
Harvest Public Media’s Peter Gray contributed to this report.
This story originally aired as part of Under the Microscope, a weekly program about science, health, and technology in mid-Missouri.