Worldwide pork industry threatened by disease
It’s the Ebola of the pig world.
African swine fever is sweeping across large swaths of the planet, causing devastation wherever it goes. It has not yet come to the United States, and officials here are working strenuously to keep it out, but it is still spreading almost unchecked.
None of this is news to pig farmers and indeed anyone involved in agriculture. But I just heard about it recently, at the Innovations in Food and Agriculture workshop sponsored by the National Press Foundation, and I was shocked.
African swine fever is a virus that only affects pigs, both wild and domesticated. Humans and other animals are not affected by it, even if they eat an infected pig.
But it can be highly fatal to pigs, which die after only a few days. It is also highly contagious, with a twist: The virus can live in the carcass of a dead pig for several months. That gives other pigs the chance to contract it, either from the carcass itself or from the clothes or the shoes of the farmer who touches it.
The virus is also spread through ticks, pig manure, knives used to cut the carcass, farm equipment and more.
There is no known cure, or even treatment.
Some estimates suggest that the disease has already killed up to one-third or more of the pigs in China. That is absolutely catastrophic news for the Chinese, who usually produce around half of all the world’s pigs. One estimate is that half of the country’s pork production will be lost.
Obviously, that potentially means financial ruin for Chinese pig farmers and the communities they live in. But the virus is hitting hard in other parts of the world as well, such as Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and some countries in Europe. Last week, it was just confirmed to be in South Korea.
So China has turned to South America to meet its demand for pork, but now the virus is starting to spread there, too. The United States is one of the few major producers left unscathed, and, despite the tariffs, U.S. pork is being shipped to China in record amounts.
Pigs breed quickly and have large litters, so the increased exports should not lead to domestic shortages.
“On one hand, African Swine Fever is a huge marketing opportunity for us,” said John Johnson, chief operating officer at the National Pork Board. “On the other hand, it is one of three (major) trade-limiting diseases” for pork.
A trade-limiting disease means that if such illnesses as African Swine Fever, Classical Swine Fever (which is not related to African Swine Fever) or Foot and Mouth Disease are detected in a country, other nations can ban all pork from that country.
Obviously, the U.S. pork industry, along with the government and pretty much anyone else who has a good idea, is working hard to keep African Swine Fever from our shores.
“You have to take a shower before you enter a sow farm, and a shower before you leave,” Johnson said. That goes for everyone, visitors and workers alike.
In addition, visitors and workers must step out of their regular shoes on one side of a line and into clean shoes that are kept on the other side, he said. Every visitor to a pig farm is recorded, and every feed truck is monitored throughout its daily rounds.
One major concern is about visitors to or from affected countries who see no harm in bringing back a favorite pork-based meal or treat. They may discard the food or even the bones and, if it isn’t thoroughly cooked, it could pass the virus onto feral pigs. From there, it easily spreads to domesticated pigs, Johnson said.
The USDA says that Americans who visit farms in other countries should declare that fact to Customs and Border Protection when they return, and that they should either throw away or disinfect any clothing they wore around pigs before re-entering the country.
The USDA also tells traveling Americans that they should not visit “a farm, premises with pigs, livestock market, sale barn, zoo, circus, pet store with pot-bellied pigs, or any other animal facility with pigs for at least (five) days after you return.”
Does that sound like overkill? Not when the stakes are this high.