US Pork Industry Braces as Ports ‘Bombarded’ by African Swine Fever

Authorities scramble defenses as U.S. ports confiscate smuggled pork products
November 28, 2019 Updated: November 28, 2019

The U.S. pork industry could profit handsomely from the higher prices that are accompanying shortages of pork products in Asia as African Swine Fever (ASF) sweeps China—the world’s biggest producer and market. However, America’s pork producers would be decimated if the disease were to gain a foothold here.

ASF originated in East Africa before spreading, around 2007, to the Caucasus region that divides Europe from Asia. From there, the virus spread northwest into wild Europe and east into Asia. Home to half the world’s pig population, China’s pork industry has been devastated by the disease since the first cases were reported there last year. Pork makes up 70 percent of Chinese meat consumption, however, and consumers now have to switch to other sources of protein, such as chicken, as pork becomes unaffordable.

The increased price of pork in China has been held responsible for a spike in inflation in September, according to a report from the Swine Health Information Center (SHIC) at the University of Minnesota.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), some 5 million pigs have died or been culled across Asia. Efforts to stop the spread of the disease have proved fruitless so far. The disease is now found throughout China as well as in Burma, Vietnam, Laos, North and South Korea, the Philippines, and even in East Timor—just over 400 miles from the city of Darwin on Australia’s northern coast.

ASF is a highly contagious disease that causes fever and internal bleeding, with some strains exhibiting a 100 percent fatality rate for domestic and feral pigs. There is no approved vaccine against ASF and no cure. The disease is also regarded as being ‘hardy,’ or extremely resistant to the environment, making it capable of surviving for extended periods in feedstuffs, frozen carcasses, or hunting trophies, for example. While the disease is highly contagious among pigs, it cannot be passed on to humans, so it poses neither a disease risk, nor is it a food safety issue. The disease has never been confirmed in North America.

The virus spreads by hitching a ride on the shoes and clothing of people who have come in contact with infected material—such as swine feces or offal, also pork products imported (or smuggled) in from affected areas overseas. Feral pigs, wild boar, warthogs, and the ticks and parasites they carry are also of concern as is contamination from vehicles, including the slurry and infectious material stuck to tires.

According to Andres Perez, Director of the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, farmers in developing countries tend to try to sell their pigs if ASF is detected in their region, as compensation payments are often insufficient if available at all. The problem is exacerbated if some farmers then smuggle or transport their pigs to markets further away from home, spreading the disease into new regions.

The Massive Risk to US Industry

According to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “ASF is a devastating, deadly disease that would have a significant impact on the U.S. livestock producers, their communities and the economy if it was found here. There is no treatment or vaccine available for this disease. The only way to stop this disease is to depopulate all affected or exposed swine herds.

“USDA is working closely with other federal and state agencies, the swine industry, and producers to take the necessary actions to protect our nation’s pigs and keep this disease out. This group is also actively preparing to respond if ASF were ever detected in the U.S.”

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) states that over 60,000 American pork producers market more than 115 million hogs annually, producing some 2.2 million tons of pork and pork-related product each year. This activity provides a total gross income of more than $20 billion and supports over half a million jobs—many in rural areas, according to the council.

Although the U.S. is overwhelmingly a net exporter of pork products, around 2.5 million tonnes are imported each year through official channels and from geographical areas free from ASF. However, pork products also enter the country illegally.

A recent article in the journal Scientific Reports states that at U.S. quarantine operations at ports of entry, “screening activities conducted between 2010 and 2015 resulted in the confiscation of an average of 8,000 pork products per year,” of which nearly half “were intercepted at international airports inside air passengers’ personal luggage.”

According to the NPPC, specially trained sniffer dogs are employed by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) to detect meat and plant materials in international airport passenger terminals. The USDA recently announced funding for 60 new canine teams to strengthen the BCBP’s “Beagle Brigade,” though the NPPC says that the border protectors are still short more than 600 agricultural inspectors.

African Swine Fever already in the U.S.?

Speaking at a Global Meat News webinar in October, Dr. Scott Dee of Pipestone Veterinary Services in Minnesota said he believes that ASF may be in North America already.

“The chances of keeping the virus out of North America are very slim,” said Scott. “We import a lot of product from China that the virus can survive in. My guess is that the virus has already entered the country and enters it regularly at port level. What we have going for us is that it hasn’t jumped over to pigs, so we haven’t seen it replicate. I think we’re getting bombarded with it at port level.”

Unexpected Sources

A recent article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association described the risks posed by animal rescue groups bringing dogs into the U.S. from China.

According to the article, a number of greyhounds were rescued from slaughter in China in August and were subsequently brought to the Chicago and Minnesota areas. This summer, six Beagles arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina after their rescue from a dog-meat festival in China. Considered meat-giving animals in China, such dogs may have been kept in close quarters with pigs in China. While dogs cannot carry the disease, the virus might be present on their paws or on their bedding, cages and drinking bowls.

Problem with Feral Swine

In a recent podcast on the Federal News Network, the Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Plum Island Animal Disease Center, Dr. John Neilan, said that “There is a high probability that the ASF virus will find its way into the United States inadvertently, and the pork industry is very worried about that.”

On the issue of the U.S. feral hog population, Neilan said, “That is a problem … that we really don’t have a solution for … You will never be able to eliminate that population, and they are susceptible. So if the disease does get into the feral population, then it’s going to be very problematic.”

Feral swine populations by county as identified in 2018. (USDA)

Feral hogs were first introduced to the Americas in the 1500s when explorers released pigs into the wild to ensure a supply of meat when they returned. Since then, feral hog populations have exploded, with the USDA stating that up to 41 states had been affected by 2014.

The warthog, native to Africa, is another animal that can harbor the disease. The common warthog is now found in south Texas, with scientists believing some may have escaped from private enclosures in the region. Warthogs are classified as ‘exotic game’ in Texas, meaning hunters may shoot them at any time. However, Neilan views warthogs as a particular danger for spreading ASF.

Neilan said that warthogs “tend to have asymptomatic infections, which means that they don’t really show much disease—and they survive. They are … part of the natural reservoirs of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.” On the population of warthogs along the Mexican-Texas border, Neilan said, “That would worry me more than having feral pigs that will naturally die, and the disease will die out eventually. But with a warthog reservoir, that could be more problematic.”

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