An animal health board says Canada is not ready to deal with a virus that has been sweeping through farms in the United States, killing millions of baby pigs.
Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea has not been found in Canada, but producers worry it could quickly ravage hog farms here if the pathogen makes it across the border.
"Good grief, it would be chaos if it was discovered here as well. There is still a tremendous amount of work to do," Robert Harding, executive director of the Canadian Swine Health Board said from Ottawa.
"If this hits it would be a catastrophic blow to our industry."
The Canadian Pork Council estimates that producers export about four million live young pigs to the U.S. each year, with transport trucks crossing the border at various points across the country almost every day.
The health board warns this highly contagious PED virus can kill every baby pig in a barn.
The board is funded by Ottawa and the pork industry and its members including the Canadian Association of Swine Veterinarians and veterinary colleges.
Part of the challenge of dealing with PED is that it first appeared in the U.S. just last spring and has already spread to 22 states.
Harding said PED is not a federally reportable disease in Canada, which means there is no single set of protocols to help prevent it from spreading here or to deal with an outbreak.
Instead, provinces and the industry are sharing information and developing plans with the help of the board.
Harding said the board is working with the federal government to improve inspections of hog transport trucks at the border to ensure they are effectively cleaned and disinfected.
The board is also urging farmers and meat plants to follow biohazard security procedures.
These include ensuring that incoming animals are from healthy herds and knowing the quality and source of feed. Producers are to report any signs of disease to their vets.
A PED alert posted on the board's website said an action plan is needed to deal with a potential outbreak.
"An intervention strategy must be established so that a clear plan is in place and can be immediately implemented in the event of PED being found in Canada. Components of this plan include containment to prevent its spread and strategies to eliminate the disease," reads the website.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency said it is working to help keep the virus out of the country.
Dr. Rajiv Arora said Canada requires all imported swine to be quarantined, inspected and certified to be disease-free at the border.
He said the agency also has a monitoring system that relies on reports from veterinarians.
Arora acknowledged the agency doesn't have its own plan to deal with an outbreak.
"Every province is working on forming their own contingency plans and response. Some are fairly advanced and have them in place — and some are in the process of finalizing," Arora said from Ottawa.
"PED is not a reportable disease in Canada. So CFIA does not have a specific policy."
Arora said PED is not a reportable disease in the U.S. or the E.U.
Hog producers say they are doing what they can to keep the virus from their farms.
Rick Bergmann, a producer near Steinbach, Man., requires anyone who enters his barn to remove their shoes and jacket. They then must take a shower and put on fresh clothes before they enter the area where the pigs are.
If there is an upside to the U.S. PED outbreak for farmers, it would be that demand and prices for young Canadian pigs have spiked.
But Bergmann wonders how long Canada will be PED-free.
"It is a very real and grave situation," he said. "We need to do our very best to keep this out of a Canada because it creates lots of economic turmoil."
Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said no one knows how the virus entered the U.S.
Officials tracking PED aren't sure of the exact number of pigs that have died, but it is in the millions, he said.
Harding said the board is watching developments closely.
"The real question is 'If it happened here today, are we ready?' And I think it is pretty obvious that we are not," he said.
"There is still much, much more to do."