Deadly Virus Sending More Pigs Straight From Fair to Slaughter

Photograph by Will Kincaid/AP Photo

After Wilbur wins a medal at the county fair in E.B. White’s children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web, the protagonist pig is spared the slaughterhouse and lives out his days, safe on Mr. Zuckerman’s farm.

Blue ribbon or not, this year’s squealers won’t be so lucky.

Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, a pig virus spreading (PDF) across at least 29 U.S. states has spurred officials from Colorado to West Virginia to recommend that fairs host “terminal” shows this summer. Translation: The hogs on display will head from the grounds straight to slaughter. To limit exposure to the the so-called PED virus, state Veterinarian Paul McGraw banned the spring weigh-in of pigs before Wisconsin’s county fairs. More local fairs may do the same this summer.

The precautions may not be enough to contain the disease. Rabobank International has forecast U.S. pork production to slump as much as 7 percent this year, the most in three decades. Retail pork chop prices in the U.S. reached an all-time in March on concern that the virus is eroding supply.

“Take him to the fair, you take him to the butcher show right after that,” says Lawrence Kane, a market adviser at Stewart-Peterson Group in Yates City, Ill. “They don’t want the animals to come in. We are not going to contribute to the spread of PED.”

The number of confirmed cases in the U.S., the world’s biggest pork exporter, has surged since the illness was first confirmed in Iowa last May. The disease, which poses no threat to humans or other food supplies, can kill all pigs under three weeks old and prevents older hogs from gaining weight, delaying their arrival at slaughter plants.

Effective or not, the new recommendations are being taken seriously. In Wisconsin, most fairs are heeding McGraw’s advice and holding terminal shows, says Bernie O’Rourke, an extension youth livestock specialist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Instead of spring weigh-ins at which animals may mingle, some fairs are using DNA testing to verify animals’ identities, O’Rourke says.

In West Virginia, “The bio-security is going to be difficult to get everybody on the same page,” says Andy Miller, the hog co-chairperson at the Berkeley County Youth Fair Association, which is following the recommendation of state veterinarian Jewell Plumley to hold a terminal-market show this year. “The ones that don’t want to sell their animals are probably just going to leave them home and not even bring them to the fair.”

Don’t break out the handkerchiefs just yet for all the piggies who do make the trip. The fictional fate of Wilbur, the prized pig who goes home after the fair, isn’t realistic. Many large county fairs— and state fairs such as those in Iowa and Colorado— already hold terminal shows for market hogs, virus outbreak or not.

Though Iowa, the biggest U.S. swine producer, has suffered the most confirmed cases of the virus, the state isn’t mandating terminal shows. Individual counties will make that decision, state vet David Schmitt has said. In any event, children who show pigs that grow into market hogs expect their animals to end up at a processing plant.

“That’s day in, day out,” Schmitt says. “It’s food production.”

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