Many of us are unaware of issues affecting our food supply — we simply expect the foods we enjoy to be readily available at reasonable prices. But what if the bacon and pork loins we place in our grocery carts became harder to find? Or prohibitively expensive? The devastating disease called African Swine Fever has made this a potential reality in Asia while also raising concerns for global pork production, forcing countries to increase supply of other proteins.
Pigs are dying all across Asia. It is estimated that by the end of 2019, over 200 million pigs will have fallen prey to the African Swine Flu — that’s over 25% of the global pig population. Will the African Swine Flu (ASF) virus hit the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom? Millions of pigs in Asia have died from ASF within the past year – and scientists and animal health experts warn of the need to pay close attention to the pernicious effects of this disease and its potential to spread to even more parts of the global food system.
Contending with disease is nothing new for anyone in animal agriculture. Modern medical and veterinary science has made remarkable progress in understanding many of the major health challenges to beef, pork, poultry and other forms of animal protein. Vaccines and treatment techniques have helped make diseases a difficult – but largely manageable – element of animal husbandry, thus providing the world a remarkably safe supply of wholesome foods.
But the specter of disease isn’t completely gone, as the current attention to a potentially devastating disease has made abundantly clear. Helping put an end to the threat posed by ASF will require a concerted effort by everyone in the pork industry – from producer to processor to marketer – with a bit of understanding and support from the consumer to boot.
What is African Swine Fever?
ASF is an especially vicious disease affecting only pigs and wild boars and is very similar to hog cholera. It’s caused by a virus in the Asfarviridae family and is characterized by a long list of very ugly symptoms and, within a few days, almost always death. The virus spreads very easily from pig to pig through direct contact or through contaminated fluids and food. Ticks, fleas and other pests can also transmit the disease by biting an infected pig and subsequently a new host.
As its name suggests, the disease was first identified in Kenya in 1921 and has been recognized in various parts of Africa for some time. It spread rapidly through Asia as agriculture moved from farmers with a couple backyard pigs to larger-scale hog farms.
As of today, there is no vaccine or cure. The only management tool is the quick identification of infected pigs and immediate isolation and euthanization. Even if a carcass of an infected animal is processed, the virus can survive for months in infected tissue – it’s simply too tough to be easily destroyed.
If there is any good news in this, it’s that the virus doesn’t transmit to other animals or to humans. The virus has no effect on people – or cows, or chickens, or pets, or fish, or any other animal species or component of our global food supply.
While humans may not contract the disease, we can play an inadvertent but critical role in its transmission. Given the long life of the virus, any direct contact with an infected animal – even one not yet displaying symptoms – can make the human a carrier of the virus. The virus may quite literally travel around the world on a human host, especially those visiting farms, if proper hygiene/sanitary and biosecurity protocols aren’t followed.
ASF and the China connection
ASF is most pronounced in Asia, especially China. China produces about half of the world’s pork and constitutes 60% of their consumed animal protein, and imports still more to meet a steady expansion of demand for animal protein by the economically growing nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged China’s 2019 pork production at more than 55 million tons. China is expected to import another 2 million tons of pork, the majority from the European Union. And with the highest headcount of almost 450 million pigs, triple the headcount of the next leading country, Chinese consumers clearly like pork.
But since ASF was first reported in China in August 2018, Chinese officials have been circumspect in estimating the total number of pigs dead as a result of the disease. But some reports place the figure as high as 40 million, with media reports of reductions in the sow breeding herd of as much as one third. And regenerating pork productive capacity after such devastating animal losses could take two to three years.
ASF is not just affecting hogs…
The disease also has magnified the stakes involved in the lingering trade dispute between China and the United States, with America soybean and feed grain exports to China rising in parallel with the expansion of the Chinese pork industry.
Pigs are fed mostly soybeans, corn, and micronutrients. Trade patterns undoubtedly will shift as pork-producing nations jockey for the opportunity to meet China’s import needs, and as oilseed and feed grain markets adjust to find a new home for products displaced by lower animal numbers in Asia.
In fact, China’s hog feed consumption is expected to drop by 40% in 2019, according to Rabobank’s ASF report.
The effects of ASF will ripple throughout large parts of the entire global food system for some time.
So how big is the ASF problem?
The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that as many as 5 million pigs already may have died or have been culled as a result of ASF. Cases of ASF have also been detected in such countries as Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Mongolia, and Laos, representing more than 10 percent of their pig population.
In recent weeks, reports of ASF also have surfaced in Thailand and as far away as South Africa, Russia, and several locations in eastern Europe among wild pig populations. In the United Kingdom, Farming Minister George Eustice prompted a great deal of attention when he urged an even more aggressive approach to prevention and warned that ASF could be expected in the UK “within a year.”
Eustice’s warning comes after authorities in Northern Ireland in June identified meat products contaminated with ASF from the luggage of international travelers. That single report shows the ease with which the disease can rapidly spread to distant parts of the world. It also explains the extraordinary international effort underway to educate people about the risks posed by ASF to agricultural interests everywhere.
“If infected meat got past the authorities and into the pig herd in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else in the UK, it would have devastating implications,” said Alistair Driver, editor of Pig World. Northern Ireland isn’t the only country facing such devastation.
Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at City University of Hong Kong and an ASF expert quoted by the UK’s Guardian, described the epidemic as “probably the most serious animal health disease [the world has] had for a long time, if not ever.”
What is to be done?
Where ASF has been detected, efforts center on containment and eradication. Herds are being culled, and efforts made to reach into the countryside to educate and assure the proper action by smaller pork producers, often located in the countryside. Commercial operations in China and throughout Asia are acting aggressively to identify sick animals and take the necessary steps to stop the spread of ASF. Commercial operators in the United States and other markets also are taking extraordinary steps and investing large amounts of money, time and work to guard against the introduction of ASF into their operations.
International health officials are stepping up biosecurity efforts, centering on import prohibitions from products originating in areas where ASF is known to be present.
USDA has increased the number of health inspectors by 179 at key sea and air entry points, augmented by specially trained beagles focused on sniffing out imported meat products like those detected in Northern Ireland. Efforts to educate people within agriculture on how to identify infected animals also have increased, and advisories issued to reassure consumers of the safety of the nation’s pork supplies. Officials acknowledge the enormity of the challenge but say they have no choice but to act aggressively. There is just too much at stake.
Should U.S. consumers be worried?
Unwarranted fear of U. S. pork – and a reluctance to make pork part of a sensible family diet – can adversely affect the 60,000 pork producers in the United States and the 550,000 jobs that the pork industry helps create. There are 73 million pigs in the United States. While there is ample evidence of the need for everyone to be vigilant in the fight against ASF and the prevention of its entry into the U.S. food system, there’s equally ample evidence that there is nothing to fear in the U.S. food supply.
The Bottom Line
You can continue to buy your favorite pork products knowing that the USDA and regulatory agencies worldwide are cautiously scrutinizing all imported pork and agricultural products. Remember that no cases have been found in the United States and, though the illness is fatal to pigs, has no effect on humans. But this is a serious threat to our global food system and ending ASF will require a concerted effort by all players in the food system.