Farmer hopes lawsuit will affect disease practices

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An Indiana farmer hopes his now-settled lawsuit against another pig producer will discourage others from intentionally infecting their own pigs with a deadly swine disease. The practice is used to acclimate pigs to a virus.

He wished others in the pork industry would have aided his efforts.
“I was disappointed all along that the industry wouldn’t join in and support me and support the cause,” Alan Wilhoite said in an interview.
Wilhoite, owner of Wilhoite Family Farms in west-central Indiana, said in court documents that his farm endured about $275,000 in losses after his pigs became infected in July 2009 with a strain of the virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. His lawsuit, filed the following month in Tippecanoe County, Ind., accused Dale Johnson, owner of a farm less than one mile away, and TDM Farms, a North Carolina–based company that owned the pigs on the Johnson farm, of intentionally infecting their pigs with the virus, which subsequently spread to the Wilhoite farm.

Wilhoite said more than 2,000 of his sows and nursery pigs were sickened, died, or had to be euthanized over several years.
In January 2008, a PRRS outbreak occurred among pigs in one of TDM’s North Carolina farms, and the company responded by negotiating with Johnson to use his Indiana farm to acclimate gilts to the virus. Gilts at the Johnson farm were inoculated with a serum developed from the North Carolina PRRS strain, according to documents filed in the Indiana Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on a motion denied in the lower court.
A confidentiality agreement prevents Wilhoite from providing details about the lawsuit settlement. But, when asked if he expects future outbreaks connected with intentional PRRS infections, he said, “Based on my settlement, I should not have any more problems with intentional inoculation around my sites.”
Adam Arceneaux, who represented TDM Farms, said he was glad those involved were able to resolve the lawsuit, but he could not comment further because the settlement is confidential. In spring 2011, he had told JAVMA that TDM was concerned the threat of lawsuits could harm the pork industry by discouraging companies from sharing information on PRRS.
Dr. Derald Holtkamp, director of the Production Animal Disease Risk Assessment Program at Iowa State University, also had feared that the Indiana lawsuit would discourage farms from sharing information and participating in regional PRRS-elimination projects. But he has not seen any signs that the lawsuit had such an effect.
Veterinarians and swine owners seem to be shifting away from live virus inoculation and toward use of vaccines, more of which have become available in the past few years, Dr. Holtkamp said. He does not know whether the shift is related to the lawsuit, and he does not have clear evidence as to whether the vaccines are more effective than inoculation. But vaccine use creates fewer potential liabilities for pork producers, he said.
The appellate court agreed that a Tippecanoe County judge was right to deny a motion by TDM and Johnson to have the case dismissed.
Dr. Jeffrey Harker testified as an expert on Wilhoite’s behalf that the Johnson farm was the source of the PRRS contagion, as shown by genetic analysis of the virus present in the TDM pigs and other strains in the area, the appellate court documents state.
Wilhoite has farmed pigs since 1980, and he hopes to continue long term in spite of the challenges posed by the current prices of supplies such as feed.