Pig virus: threat to bacon price ignores ugly truth of factory farms

Maki, Wikimedia Commons

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2014—While most of the media is focusing on the possible rise in bacon prices due to a virus currently killing millions of piglets, few have failed to point out that the root of this outbreak lies in the inherently unhealthy, unsanitary and inhumane way pigs are raised in factory farms.

Also known as PED, porcine epidemic diarrhea has already killed over one million piglets and has spread to over 23 states and Canada. The numbers are not exact, however, because farmers are not required to report incidents or deaths to federal regulators.

“It’s easy to imagine that we could have lost a million pigs, and before the winter is over I wouldn’t be surprised if that impact would be maybe three, four times that,” said Rodney Baker, a professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University to NPR.

PED spreads rapidly through pig farms and appears to get past even the most strict biosecurity protocols. According to many farmers, mere hand washing by livestock workers is proving ineffective, as the virus is carried to other farms in small pieces of manure in truck tires and the soles of boots and shoes.

Adult pigs, while also affected by the virus that was first detected in the U.S. in April of 2013, are more likely to recover than piglets, as the smaller bodies often cannot survive the dehydration that comes with the diarrhea. There is no vaccine for PED yet and most methods of containment have so far proven ineffective.

Despite the media hype, it is unlikely that the death of one million pigs out of the total U.S. porcine herd of nearly 66 million as reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will have any real effect on bacon prices, especially when feed prices are lower than in past years due to a larger 2013 corn crop.

Unfortunately it appears that everyone—except The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, that is—is missing the point.

What should be alarming consumers is not that bacon prices are going to go up, but the reasons why a virus of this kind is spreading so quickly: factory farming is generally unsanitary, unhealthy and promotes the growth and spread of dangerous viruses and bacteria.

Most of the pork found in supermarkets today is the product of factory farms where pigs are overcrowded and sows spend most of their lives in gestation crates in unsanitary conditions. This kind of intensive livestock farming makes the spread of bacteria and disease not only a very real possibility but a probability that farmers bank on.

For this reason, otherwise healthy animals are routinely given antibiotics and vaccines to prevent infection and outbreaks. Beside compensating for unsanitary conditions and overcrowding, feeding healthy animals antibiotics promotes more and faster weight gain.

Antibiotics for use on domestic food-producing animals now accounts for over 80% of the antibiotics market in the United States. Several studies have concluded that, along with over prescription by doctors, the overuse of antibiotics in livestock is contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria in humans, responsible for infecting an estimated two million people and killing 23,000 people in the U.S. every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While it is important to point out that PED is not a threat to human health and it is a virus, not a bacterium (making antibiotics ineffective against it), its rapid spread and veterinarians’ inability to contain it is a red flag. The PED epidemic may not be a cause for alarm (yet), but can the same be said of future viruses or bacteria that may arise in the 8.9 billion farm animals raised in factory farms in the U.S.?

However, rather than focus on the reason this virus is so deadly and spreading so quickly, reports from Fox News to NPR’s The Salt have focused on bacon prices. As Jon Stewart pointed out: shouldn’t we be eating less of it anyway?

Writer’s note: while the mainstream media has missed the point, there are two great reports from Grist and Ecorazzi.

(PED commentary begins at 12:00)

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