Delegates to the 41st Banff Pork Seminar were in the final moments of the last break-out session on the final day. Some were planning to head into the main auditorium for the boar pit – the final words of the seminar. Most were thinking about hitting the road and getting to their next destination when there was a sudden and profound change in each of the rooms.
“It was like a lightning bolt,” said Don Brookbank, procurement manager for the Olymel processing plant in Red Deer.
People were looking at their cell phones in shock.
The dreaded guest, the one against which so many defences had been assembled, had crossed the United States border and invaded a farrow-to-finish farm in Ontario’s Middlesex County.
Canada’s first case of porcine epidemic diarrhea was confirmed on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 23 – the second and last day of the 2014 Banff Pork Seminar, where more than 500 people were gathered, including producers, packers, veterinarians, truckers, scientists and economists from across North America’s pork industry.
I heard the news at about 3:50 p.m., just leaving the afternoon breakout session.
Almost at once, the entire group streamed into the main auditorium for the closing session, during which Ontario veterinarian Doug MacDougald would lead discussion on containing a disease that had exploded across the United States nine months earlier and was continuing to spread, seemingly unchecked.
Little more than a day earlier, MacDougald had opened the 2014 seminar with a brief update on efforts to keep the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PED) out of Canada. Now, he was saddled with the task of answering new questions: How wide has it spread, how do we keep it contained, how well are we prepared for this?
By the end of January, a week after the seminar, the virus had been found on three more farms in Ontario and swabs taken from a loading dock at a Quebec processing plant had discovered DNA from the virus on two separate occasions.
By Jan. 22, people involved in the US industry were estimating that the disease had hit more than one third and possibly as high as 40 per cent of the hog barns in the industry and that four million pigs had died, at a cost of $300 million and counting, said MacDougald in his initial update.
“Those kind of numbers are staggering and we need to equate those to Canada. The concern from a bio-security aspect is that (the disease) is breaking into highly bio-secure and filtered site, so (there are) questions on the mode of travel with infected feedstuffs, corn and DDGs under scrutiny right now,” he said.
A concern for Canada in early detection is that there is a range of clinical signs, so it is much easier to walk by and miss early cases, said MacDougald.
With the initial discovery on Jan. 23 and subsequent cases confirmed in the following days, provincial governments and organizations have adapted protocol to try checking the spread before it causes the level of damage that is now being experienced in the US.
Ontario announced that it would provide $2 million to support efforts, just after Alberta announced that it would provide $500,000 in areas such as veterinary costs and lab tests.
Alberta veterinarian Julia Keenliside, an epidemiologist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, said the province had announced in mid-January that it had declared PED to be a reportable disease, which is not the case in other provinces, including Ontario.
Along with that announcement, Alberta Agriculture promised to help producers with detection costs, including paying for the first visit from the vet and ensuring that lab tests are performed and returned as quickly as possible.
Working with Alberta Pork, the province has a trace-back and a trace-out system that can find points of contact in the event the virus does make its way west, said Keenliside.
Information from Alberta’s traceability network shows that very few pigs travel between Alberta and Ontario, mainly a few shipments of breeding stock.
“We’re following our response line that we had worked on collaboratively with industry. We’re prepared for this because we thought that Ontario might be the one of the first places to break, because they have more pigs than we do, they have more truck traffic and they have more traffic to the US,” said Keenliside.
Brookbank said his plant has protocols in place in the event that PED is discovered in Alberta, laying the primary responsibility on producers to ensure that they have done everything possible to break the chain.
“The key break has to be transport trucks going to farms. That’s critical to producers – proper cleaning, drying, disinfecting,” said Brookbank.
“We have a plan in place. We’re ready to do what we can, and we will do everything we can to do our part,” he said.
Darcy Fitzgerald, executive director for Alberta Pork, said his group has been talking with producers and keeping them updated on developments and on the need to be vigilant with their bio-security measures and in watching what’s going in and out of their farms.
The trucking industry has co-operated fully, ensuring that trucks are properly cleaned, dried and disinfected between loads, said Fitzgerald.
Daryl Toews, Alberta regional manager for Steve’s Transport, said his company is doing everything possible to keep its trucks from shipping the virus to the farms they serve. A drying bay was added to its wash facilities about a year ago so trucks and trailers can be cleaned, disinfected, and then thoroughly dried between loads.
“We’ve done a lot of training of our drivers, giving them proper instruction about bio-security and proper footwear to help break the chain of the disease.”
Toews said his company is keeping current with research and has done everything it knows about so far, and will update its practices and add new procedures as required.
In response to a question from the floor during the boar pit session, Keenliside said she could not guarantee that lab results would be returned in 24 hours or less.
Timing of early detection is critical, said MacDougald.
“There’s approximately 10,000 pig trucks a year going across the border and coming back, and many more cattle trucks as well, all at risk of cross-contamination,” he said.
Lab results from suspicious cases in Ontario are back within one day, a key element in putting together a rapid response, said MacDougald.
Even simulationed analysis on suspect cases has been “scary,” he said.
“The reality is that we’ve got a lot of pigs moving and a lot of contact with herds. It is essential that we get early detection and we are prepared to contain and eliminate it,” said MacDougald.
Protocols for disinfecting transportation units and a national surveillance system are essential to detect an incidence of the virus as quickly as possible, he said.
The reality in Ontario is that it does not have the capacity to clean all of the trucks that are hauling pigs within the province.
The emphasis has to be on trucks that are crossing the US border, he said.
“The direction today is to have every truck washed and disinfected in a drilled-down, approved manner and do our testing.
Looking across the table at delegates gathered for the boar pit session, MacDougald admitted that measures to contain PED were about a month behind where they needed to be at that point.
“The direction today is containment,” he said.
“The direction is also to follow contacts on where people, supplies and equipment have gone. As of today and tomorrow the focus is marshalling resources and doing extensive investigating.”
More questions were raised later in the meeting, when the discussion moved to disposal of deadstock in the US.
At this point, there is no plan for disposal of deadstock in Canada, said MacDougald.
A truck that had picked up at the Middlesex farm had gone on to eight more farms afterward, before the presence of PED was discovered, he said.
Samples were taken from the truck before it was washed and from the pit where it had dumped, said MacDougald. Test results were not available at the time of the meeting.
Iowa-based economist Steve Meyer said that as bad as PED is for the industry, it is especially tough for the people on the affected farms, and for any other farms that may become affected.
Looking at the other side of PED, Meyer forecast an improvement in prices for those farms that are not affected as the markets respond to the impending gap in supply.
The key direction for Canadians is to keep the disease contained while continuing to work on strategies already being developed to deal with those farms that are affected, said MacDougald.
“It may be acting like a super-virus, but folks it’s not. We know if it’s handled right in most situations, the track record is sow herds can eliminate this in 90 to 100 days,” he said.
Break-out sessions held earlier in the seminar discussed transport bio-security and surveillance networks as tools to protect farms and prevent the spread of disease.
Ontario veterinarian Marty Misener presented an Ontario Swine Health Board study that revealed significant gaps in Ontario’s pig transport infrastructure.
The 2012 Swine Industry Project was geared to assessing wash capacity, assessing the range of practices in use, identify gaps and recommend ways to close them, identify best practices in use across North America and engage the industry to create a truly consultative process.
Misener said that, in his opinion, the compelling reality from the study is that the industry in Ontario currently “transports a huge number of pigs (in) dirty or inadequately washed, disinfected and dried trucks.”
A key factor is the finding that Ontario falls at least one third below the wash capacity it needs for a major disease control initiative, said Misener.
“It’s clear that the highest risk of PED transmission in Canada is from contaminated trailers returning from the US (from) high-risk points of contact. Slaughter facilities are right at the top.”
Truckers hauling pigs in Canada have gone out of their way to take precautions as much as possible and are not supposed to haul US pigs, he said.
However, producers should question the truckers they hire to make sure that their units are not hauling anything that is high risk.
Producers should also question truckers on where and how they have washed their tractors and trailers.
Units washed stateside in facilities that recycle their water will go in with a small amount of virus and come out fully contaminated, said Misener.
While there are some theories about PED travelling on dust particles, Misener said he believes one of the primary sources is from infected feed tracked into the barn.
A second transport study looks at high-risk truck events with PED and then seeks methods for reducing those risks.
The study includes a surveillance component that has confirmed that trucks are returning contaminated after visiting high-risk points in the US.
Along with the strict protocol for washing and disinfecting trucks, Misener expressed a need for producers and packers to design or redesign their loading docks in ways that prevent cross contamination.
Overall, he said, the protocols need to improve across the country.
“I have an overwhelming sense of urgency as far as PED,” said Misener.
“We need national requirements. This is a Canadian challenge. We have a ton of work ahead.”
Keeping watch and comparing notes were also offered as vital means for identifying disease issues and taking appropriate action. Chris Byra of the Canadian Swine Health Intelligence Network and Alberta veterinarian Gail Cunningham discussed the structure and benefits of local and national surveillance systems.
“The days of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ are officially over,” Cunningham said in presenting a discussion of local surveillance projects, prepared by fellow practitioners Leigh Rosengren and Manon St. Hilaire for the Canadian Association of Swine Veterinarians.
“We need the knowledge of what we have locally. We need knowledge sharing among the producers and being able to do that as a group means we should be able to respond to disease better, faster, cheaper and stronger,” said Cunningham.
“You can do together what you cannot do alone, and I think PED really highlights that. We can’t sit with our heads down. We have to work together . . . and I think we’ll be a better industry on the other side of this.”
Cunningham described how local disease-monitoring projects are designed and set up in response to local disease problems.
Relevant information is voluntarily shared with all participants in the project, including their names, locations and the health status of their herds.
The benefits for participants are early warning of a disease issue and reduced response time to either avoid or contain the infection.
The CSHIN surveillance model dovetails with regional projects, but operates quite differently, said Cunningham.
B.C. based veterinarian Chris Byra described the network as a system in which swine veterinarians share data, which are then mapped out to identify emerging trends.
Producers don’t have to do anything but agree to participate in the program, with their vets to do the work. It is then up to the veterinarians to share as little or as much information as they wish with their producers.
“Our goal is that 100 per cent of farmers who produce pigs will have a veterinarian who knows what’s going on in the country,” said Byra.
Data taken daily from the surveillance network gives an up-to-date map of herd health status across the country, creating a tool that can make Canadian pork more valuable in export markets, he said.
“We’re trying to deal with information that is going to reduce the cost of disease on the farm. We’re focusing a lot on diseases that don’t fall under other jurisdictions.”
Among his examples was the CSHIN’s discovery of an increase in the cases of circo-virus in Western Canada.
“This is in spite of vaccination, and we know the vaccine works, so we have been doing some digging into what’s going on. We’re finding the administration of the vaccine isn’t correct, that people have cut down dosages,” said Byra.
“Through this period of time where the industry hasn’t been very economic, there are alternatives being sought. One thing we’re seeing, though, is that when things are not done properly, this disease pops up again,” he said.
Circo-virus is an example of disease that could have been managed better with a national database that showed everyone what was happening in their region and across the country.
When circo-virus started to show up, people were putting money into the same problems and getting the same results, creating a lot of duplication that could have been avoided, had there been a better system in place for sharing information.
The national surveillance system now in place should help speed up the detection of PED while helping plan the attack on a broader basis, said Byra.
Participants are keeping watch on incidents of diarrhea and reporting lab results as they come in.
Along with pointing out hot spots, adequate participation in a national surveillance network will also show where the CSHIN is not getting reports.
“No news is good news,” said Byra.
Information gleaned from the data can be useful to provincial governments as well as the federal government in managing outbreaks and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has been involved in the CSHIN’s regular meetings, he said.
“Right now, there are countries that want to know what the PED status is in Canada, and we want to be very clear about our answer and actually show some data,” he said.
“If there is a trade issue, we can at least get some tools to shut it down faster.”
Obstacles include a lack of stable funding for the program and the relatively low participation of vets.
Currently, there are 15 practices and 32 veterinarians taking part, representing about 40 per cent of production and averaging 75 to 80 submissions per week, said Byra.
More data from more vets would give a clearer picture of what is going on across the board, while more secure funding is needed to help continue with the project.
“Both industry and government are saying we’ve got to keep this going, but the final decisions are still being made,” he said.  •
— By Brenda Kossowan