DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) — U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday ordered farmers to start reporting cases of a deadly pig virus and pledged over $26 million in funding to combat the disease, pushing back against criticism of his handling of a widespread outbreak.
Vilsack, speaking to a roomful of farmers at an industry gathering in Iowa, said they must tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture about outbreaks of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus effective immediately to help control the spread of the disease.
The USDA had said in April it would require reporting of cases of PED and swine delta coronavirus, but provided few details.
PED first appeared in the United States over a year ago and has wiped out an estimated 10 percent of U.S. pigs. The virus causes diarrhea and vomiting and is nearly always lethal to baby piglets.
Veterinarians have said the USDA failed to protect the nation from the virus, which had never been in the country before it was found in Ohio in April 2013 and whose origins remain unknown.
“It’s not a failure,” Vilsack told reporters at the World Pork Expo about the spread of PED. “It’s a challenge.”
Vilsack said that requiring farmers to report the disease should help ease concerns among importers. Already, 11 countries have limited imports of live U.S. hogs and one country has banned pork imports because of concerns about the virus.
“We’re seeing record exports in pork. Why would we want to jeopardize that?” Vilsack said.
The United States last year exported about $6 billion worth of pork and $30.5 million worth of live hogs.
The emergence of the virulent, fast-moving virus caught the USDA and hog industry off guard. It has killed about eight million piglets so far and helped to push pork prices to record highs.
PED is not a threat to humans or to food safety, according to the USDA.
However, farmers and veterinarians fear that other diseases could enter the country because the USDA does not know how PED entered, fuelling concerns about the measures used to protect the U.S. food supply.
“The department in charge of protecting our nation’s food supply should not have taken a year to act,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro said. “But I hope with resources finally being put in to monitoring PED, we will at long last be able to track the cause of this virus and stop it in its tracks.”
Vilsack said the outbreaks raised questions about “whether or not we are as prepared as we need to be” to check diseases at national borders.
Since PED was discovered spring last year, a second strain of the virus and a different disease called swine delta coronavirus have also been identified.
Vilsack pledged $26.2 million in funding to combat all the diseases, including $11.1 million to support strengthened bio-security practices at farms.
“More money may be needed in the future, but $26 million in an environment like we have right now is new money,” said Howard Hill, president of the National Pork Producers Council and an Iowa hog farmer.