RED DEER, Alta. – Judging from the bumper stickers, plenty of people ‘heart’ Alberta beef already, but producers of another popular Alberta meat aren’t sitting back and letting themselves be eclipsed in the marketplace by their more well-known sister product.
Pork – raised mostly on farms south of Red Deer – is also an important product in the province, with some 70% of it exported to about 100 markets around the world.
As with other livestock products, however, getting pork to market requires special attention, including ensuring that the trucks that carry the pigs are spic-and-span as to prevent disease transmission. And while there hasn’t been a mad cow-like outbreak that wreaks havoc on the pork market, porcine production can and has been affected by a different ailment acronym: PED, or porcine epidemic diarrhea.
PED, according to Geoff Geddes, communications coordinator for Alberta Pork, doesn’t transmit to humans, but its presence could be a costly conundrum for producers.
“It’s strictly a pig disease, but it has a 100% mortality rate in nursery pigs and wiped out several million pigs in the United States,” he said, noting that the disease raised its ugly head in the US about three years ago and, since then, has also hit about 60 farms in Ontario, a few in Quebec and a few Manitoba. “We’ve managed to keep it out of Alberta so far, but it was pretty devastating for a lot of producers (elsewhere). The only silver lining was that it drove prices up because it reduced the supply, so it helped our producers pay a few bills.”
Geddes noted that PED’s effects can go beyond mere money. “To have 100% mortality in the nursery pigs, it’s difficult financially and emotionally to see that happening on your farm,” he said. “We really felt for all the producers who had to go through that.”
Geddes noted that PED can also affect older pigs but is generally not fatal, but pigs can’t be sold or slaughtered once they’ve been infected.
The disease appears to have initially jumped the Canada/US border in feed, “and then from there it spread from farm to farm, especially in Ontario, where the farms are really close together,” Geddes said.
Transporting the pigs poses a huge risk for spreading PED, which is the main reason behind a special focus on truck washing, as outlined in a new program – the Western Canadian Swine Transport Wash Program – a joint effort between the pork producer organizations in the western provinces that’s designed to help set, maintain and publicize standards for the washing of the trucks that carry the product.
“The biggest transmitter of PED was the trucks that arrived at the barns because they weren’t clean enough or there were some other issues,” said Javier Bahamon, animal care and quality assurance specialist with Alberta Pork.
Bahamon said there have been enough protocols and processes implemented over the years, but the problem was that “nobody was checking them. No one was asking what the standards were or the implication of the protocols.”
He said some of the confusion came because ‘clean truck’ could mean one thing to one person and something else to another, depending on circumstances.
“Sometimes clean can mean you just need to scrape the truck,” he said, “but from my perspective, clean means you wash and disinfect properly the truck.”
Muddying the washing waters was a loosening of regulations that had required trucks to be washed in the United States before they crossed the border.
“They had sort of suspended that to allow people to come and wash them in Canada, where we tend to get more of a thorough washing (because) a lot of the truck washes in the States use recycled water,” said Geddes. “Now, because of PED, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has decided that…starting in January, they’re going to be enforcing that again and requiring the trucks to be washed in the States.”
He said his organization is encouraging people to wash the trucks in Canada as well. “I know it’s extra time and extra expense, but it’s so important to make sure you’re getting a proper wash, disinfect and dry to avoid not just PED but the spread of other diseases as well.”
Bahamon said he’s heard some producers claim they can clean a trailer in 20 minutes, but such a quick wash isn’t sufficient. The voluntary program will set up a system of audits to help ensure cleanliness.
“The truck wash companies can have these individuals going through with (the paperwork) that we developed,” Bahamon said. “After we have the results of that visit and can benchmark that facility and the procedures, (the company) will see where they stand among the other people in the program.”
The trucking industry appears to be embracing the concept.
“It’s really good for the trucking industry that they’ve engaged with us and have been very helpful in doing what needs to be done in order to get the herds free of any kind of diseases,” Bahamon said. “It’s not easy to do it with everybody, but I’d say that 90% of producers will engage and government is very supportive, so I think we have the resources and the willingness from everybody to do it.”
The goal is to set the biosecurity bar higher, and it appears to be working so far.
“A couple of those facilities weren’t aware that they weren’t doing the best job at washing, but now they’re willing to do it and we are getting to the point where everybody’s doing (the washing) at the same level,” Bahamon said.
Geddes noted that pork is a big part of the Alberta economy, accounting for thousands of direct and indirect jobs as well as millions of dollars in revenue.
“People don’t realize, because the number of producers is small – there’s about 400. But…we’re the fourth largest pork producer in the in the country, behind Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.”
Geddes didn’t have estimates for this year’s harvest, but estimates that it’ll be similar to last year’s production.
Perhaps, with this new washing initiative, pork producers will have a chance to really ‘clean up’ in the marketplace.