By Ros Krasny
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A potentially fatal hog virus, porcine epidemic diarrhea, has been found in the United States for the first time, government and private industry officials said on Friday, posing a new threat for the country's struggling pork producers.
PEDV, an incurable condition that causes diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration in hogs, has been identified in Iowa, the largest producing state, and possibly beyond. The severity of the outbreak is not yet known.
The virus exists in much of the world but has not previously occurred in the western hemisphere.
The USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratories has detected the virus in the Iowa hog population, a Department of Agriculture spokesman said.
Cindy Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board in Des Moines, Iowa, said: "It may be a little bit more widespread than just with Iowa at this point ... we're still trying to understand that and determine where it all is."
Hog futures in Chicago fell sharply on Friday as rumors swirled the disease had been detected in Iowa and Minnesota.
PEDV is not a food safety concern and does not affect humans, the USDA spokesman said.
Officials with USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) held a call with livestock industry representatives on Friday to discuss the situation. There are currently no interstate trade restrictions related to PEDV for U.S. hogs and pigs.
PEDV has been seen in England, much of Europe, China, Taiwan and South Korea, according to Iowa State University.
"We don't know the orientation of this particular disease (PEDV) and how it first got here to the United States," Cunningham said.
Tom Burger, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said his group was getting "conflicting reports" on how the virus might have arrived.
There is no effective treatment for the virus other than good care and the provision of adequate water to combat dehydration, according to the university. Sanitary and quarantine measures can help to slow the spread of the virus.
"All ages of the swine can be affected. But the most severe clinical signs are seen in the very young and nursing baby pigs, the baby pigs that are still nursing," said Burger.
The current outbreak could be short lived. Pig herds typically develop a strong immunity to the virus over two to three weeks, at which point the virus disappears spontaneously.
Depending on how widespread the incidence, the virus could tighten U.S. pork supplies in about five to six months by causing the deaths of baby pigs, said Steve Meyer, president of the consulting firm Paragon Economics.
But Meyer said exports of U.S. pork would probably not be effected.
U.S. pork producers have been fighting back from record-high feed costs that followed the historic 2012 drought, which hurt their operating margins. Grain prices are headed down, giving incentives to producers to expand their herds.
(Additional reporting by Theopolis Waters, Tom Polansek and P. J. Huffstutter in Chicago; Editing by Chris Reese and Andre Grenon)