Pig virus drives bacon prices up

By Melonie Flomer

April 11, 2014

Bacon prices are on the rise in grocery stores in Richmond County and across the country. An anticipated shortfall in pork production is driving the price hikes, and the reason for that shortfall is America’s first encounter with a swine virus believed to have originated in China.

The virus has not been found in Richmond County, but officials report that the deadly virus has been killing newborn pigs in 27 states, including North Carolina, for 11 months. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services defines the virus known as PED (or porcine epidemic diarrhea) as “a viral disease that is associated with outbreaks of diarrhea and vomiting in swine,” but “does not affect people and is not a food safety concern.”

It is, however, a food availability concern. The virus, which takes a heavier toll on young pigs, has caused pork producers in affected states to make the difficult decision to euthanize infected piglets. The resulting loss of thousands of baby pigs has ignited speculation that national pork production will likely decline this year.

Bacon prices have risen with the mortality rates since December.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics “a pound of bacon averaged $5.46 in February, 13 percent more than a year ago.”

Locally, bacon prices are somewhat better than February’s reported national average. As of Wednesday, prices collected from four area grocery stores reflected an average cost of $4.64 per pound.

Tiffanee Conrad, an agricultural extension agent in Richmond County, offered words of caution concerning the spread of the virus in North Carolina.

“No cases of PED virus have been reported to NCDA on any farms in Richmond County or surrounding counties,” she said. “There have been lots of cases in Sampson and Duplin counties. It could be spread here at any time because it is very contagious in pigs to each other. However, people cannot get this disease, only pigs. Our farmers work really hard on taking biosecurity measures on their farms to prevent their animals from getting this disease or any other.”

The measures being taken include thorough cleaning and and disinfection of equipment used to contain and transport hogs. In addition, visitors to local pig farms have been all but eliminated.

In a January article published on the N.C. Cooperative Extension Duplin County Center website, extension agent Amanda Hatcher and support specialist Wanda Hargrove compiled data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the live weights of federally inspected hogs and explained why the numbers may indicate a slight increase in pork production in 2014 despite the loss of pigs to PED virus.

According to the article, “Since 2000, the average gain in slaughter weights between June and December averaged 3.62 pounds. In 2013, live weights of federally inspected slaughtered hogs increased by 9.25 pounds. So, while estimated commercial slaughter numbers are expected to increase only fractionally in 2014, higher average dressed weights are expected to contribute to increases in pork production of just under 2 percent in 2014.”

The Associated Press reports that the virus is most active during the cold, winter months and while experimental vaccines are being developed, none have been approved by the federal government. And because it takes six months for a hog to reach market weight, supplies will be short over the summer.

Steve Meyer, a pork industry consultant, told the AP that “in the end, consumers will be most affected with pork prices likely to be 10 percent higher overall this summer than a year ago.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.