AN animal health board says Canada is not ready to deal with a virus that has been sweeping through farms in the United States, killing millions of baby pigs.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) has not been found in Canada, but producers worry it could quickly ravage hog farms here if the pathogen makes it across the border.
"Good grief, it would be chaos if it was discovered here as well. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do," Robert Harding, executive director of the Canadian Swine Health Board said from Ottawa.
"If this hits it would be a catastrophic blow to our industry."
The Canadian Pork Council estimates producers export about four million live young pigs to the U.S. each year, with transport trucks crossing the border at various points across the country almost every day.
The health board warns this highly contagious PED virus can kill every baby pig in a barn.
Hog producers say they are doing what they can to keep the virus from their farms.
Rick Bergmann, a producer near Steinbach and vice-chairman of the Manitoba Pork Council (MPC) and the Canadian Pork Council, requires anyone who enters his barn to remove their shoes and jacket, shower and put on fresh clothes before they enter the area where the pigs are. And they have to shower again and change back into their other clothes before they leave the barn.
As well, all trucks and trailers must be washed and disinfected before they are allowed onto his farm, Bergmann added.
He said most of Manitoba's hog producers already take similar precautions.
"We spent a lot of time and money over the years focusing on bio-security, which has helped us to build a bit of a fortress around our farms to help protect us from diseases," he said. "It (PED) might or it might not come (to Manitoba). But producers here will do whatever we can do to ensure it doesn't get here."
"It is a very real and grave situation," he added. "We need to do our very best to keep this out of a Canada because it creates lots of economic turmoil."
In addition to the on-farm measures, Bergmann and MPC general manager Andrew Dickson said truck-cleaning centres have been established at several locations to wash and disinfect trucks returning to Manitoba after delivering hogs or piglets to customers in the United States.
The drivers of these trucks are also encouraged not to enter any U.S. barns when they make their deliveries, Dickson said. "So the drivers themselves try to stay as clean as possible."
If there is an upside to the U.S. PED outbreak for farmers, it would be demand and prices for young Canadian pigs have spiked.
The Canadian Swine Health Board board is funded by Ottawa and the pork industry and its members including the Canadian Association of Swine Veterinarians and veterinary colleges.
Part of the challenge of dealing with PED is that it first appeared in the U.S. just last spring and has already spread to 22 states.
Harding said PED is not a federally reportable disease in Canada, which means there is no single set of protocols to help prevent it from spreading here or to deal with an outbreak.
Instead, provinces and the industry are sharing information and developing plans with the help of the board.
Harding said the board is working with the federal government to improve inspections of hog transport trucks at the border to ensure they are effectively cleaned and disinfected.
The board is also urging farmers and meat plants to follow biohazard security procedures.
These include ensuring incoming animals are from healthy herds and knowing the quality and source of feed. Producers are to report any signs of disease to their vets.
A PED alert posted on the board's website said an action plan is needed to deal with a potential outbreak.
"An intervention strategy must be established so that a clear plan is in place and can be immediately implemented in the event of PED being found in Canada. Components of this plan include containment to prevent its spread and strategies to eliminate the disease," reads the website.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is working to help keep the virus out of the country.
Dr. Rajiv Arora said Canada requires all imported swine to be quarantined, inspected and certified to be disease-free at the border.
-- The Canadian Press, with files by Murray McNeill