The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports the DNA of a virus found in China that likely entered the country via reusable tote bags for international trade nearly matches a virus that killed more than 8 million baby pigs in 2013 and 2014.

Last summer, government officials investigated the potential sources of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv), which wiped out nearly 10 percent of the country’s hog population and drove bacon and pork chop prices to historic highs.

Tote bags known as Flexible Intermediate Bulk Containers, according to investigators' report, "best fit the criteria established for entry into the United States, rapid and wide spread across the country, and introduction onto individual farms."

Several scenarios of how PEDv arrived in the U.S. and spread include accidental transmissions from foreign visitors, intentional infection, and virus transfer through China-made pet treats.

The report stated that the tote bags are woven, plastic fiber bags designed to carry 1,000 to 3,000 pounds. These were possibly reused but often not cleaned. Tests conducted on the virus vouched for its ability to survive for a number of weeks within the bags' protective weave.

Another possibility would be fertilizer, compost, or wastewater from a farm contaminating the bags before they were shipped to the country.

In the U.S., feed mills receive and transport feed in the tote bags. Some veterinarians with direct links to farmers believe the feed supply may have been part of potential cross-contamination. Their distributors, for instance, service a large network of customers across the Midwest and beyond, said the report.

The deadly virus outbreak prompted changes in animal feed product handling policies, with the USDA recommending companies avoid reusing the bags or sanitize them.

The report also states that tote bags also transport chicken jerky, pig ears, and other pet treats from China to the U.S. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA looked at the link between the pig virus and pet deaths from jerky treats from China from 2012 to 2013 but detected nothing.

PEDv is believed to have first emerged in April 2013 in Ohio, spreading quickly to other states that include badly hit Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and North Carolina.

Pork producers welcomed the developments from the report but dubbed the investigation "inconclusive," keeping the door open for other illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease.

Dave Warner, National Pork Producers Council spokesman, said their organization "remains concerned" about gaps in animal health protection.

Based on estimates, the economic costs of the deadly piglet virus to the country could reach $1.8 billion.

Since the peak of the outbreak in 2014, new cases of PEDv have slowed but do not allay fears of the virus returning. In early 2015, a new strain was identified by American researchers and signals the virus' continued mutation.

Photo: Lisa Morrow | Flickr

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