Focus on Ag: African swine fever hits the hog industry

Kent Thiesse
Farm Management Analyst and Vice President, MinnStar Bank

One of the hottest topics in the world’s swine industry today, as well as in the entire agriculture and animal health sectors, is the spread of African swine fever (ASF) in China and other countries. Many concerns have also been raised about the potential animal health and economic impacts to the U.S. swine industry. While ASF is not present in the U.S., or any other country in the western hemisphere, the disease is leading to some changes in disease protocols in this country, as well as having some economic impacts to the ag industry.

ASF is a highly contagious viral disease that only infects pigs. Humans have never contracted ASF anywhere in the world and there is no food safety risk from ASF. Other animals and pets are not susceptible to ASF disease, unless the pet is a pig. There is a very high mortality rate in pigs that are infected with the AFS virus. AFS disease is typically spread in swine by close contact such as nose-to-nose, ingestion of uncooked infected meat products, or by equipment and humans. The AFS virus can last up to 30 days in fecal material and organic matter, up to 140 days in fresh pork products, and indefinitely in frozen pork. Currently, there is not a vaccine to prevent or control ASF.

AFS disease has been around for a long time, primarily confined to regions of Eastern Europe that were not major hog production areas; however, AFS has now spread into Asia in a big way. ASF was first confirmed in China in August of 2018, spreading quickly through the many small swine herds that exist across the country. By early 2019, ASF disease had been positively identified in nearly every Province in China, and the impacts of the disease continue to worsen. ASF disease has now also been confirmed in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Mongolia, and is continuing to spread across the region.

China is the number one producer and consumer of pork in the world, producing and consuming close to half of the world’s total pork last year. In 2017, prior to the ASF outbreak, China harvested and processed 700 million pigs, which is approximately five times the level in the U.S. Now in 2019, it is estimated that 150 to 200 million pigs could die or be destroyed in China as a result of ASF disease. These alarming numbers are having a huge impact on Chinese pork producers and processors, the Chinese agriculture industry, and the overall economy of the country.

China normally imports approximately two percent of the total pork that is consumed in the country; however, this represents almost 20 percent of the total world pork trade. Major suppliers have been the United States and Europe. Many analysts are projecting Chinese pork imports to increase by 40 percent in 2019 to compensate for the lost production. Based on the expected increased demand in China, U.S. pork prices rose dramatically from late February to early April this year, with the lean hog price increasing by over $25 per hundredweight; however, in recent weeks, lean hog prices have dropped back to more moderate levels

The U.S. should be in a good position to meet the increased demand for pork products in China, due to the large levels of hog production and pork supplies that currently exist in this country. However, the ongoing trade war with China, which adds about a 62% tariff on Chinese pork imports from the U.S., is tempering Chinese pork purchases from the U.S., resulting in increased Chinese pork imports from Europe and other countries.

USDA is working closely with leaders in the swine industry, State Veterinarians, State Agriculture Departments, and Land-Grant Universities to develop strategies to prevent and control AFS disease. These collaborative efforts also involve managing the disease, if an AFS outbreak should occur in the North America, as well as working on vaccines to prevent AFS. USDA has also initiated a coordinated approach for AFS surveillance and prevention methods.

ASF surveillance and prevention efforts currently being implemented by USDA include:

• Adding ASF to the existing surveillance efforts for classical swine fever, including expansion of the testing capabilities and capacity of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network.

• Work with State Veterinarians and the swine industry to test sick and high-risk pigs for the ASF virus, including wild hogs and feral swine, in order to isolate any potential ASF outbreak before it spreads.

• Work collaboratively with agriculture and animal health officials on a coordinated approach to prevent ASF, control any disease outbreaks, and manage trade issues associated with ASF.

• Special attention by U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff at ports of entry into the U.S., especially for passengers, cargo, and products arriving from China and other ASF positive countries.

• Increased surveillance at key U.S. commercial seaports and airports by detector dogs with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to find illegal products being transported into the U.S.

Five important facts for the public to remember about ASF disease:

1. ASF is not a public health threat in the U.S. or other countries. ASF is a disease that only affects swine, and there is no evidence that ASF has ever infected humans or other livestock.

2. ASF is not a food safety concern and pork products are safe to eat. Even though ASF does not affect humans, USDA has strict protocols in place to prohibit sick animals from entering the food chain. USDA also prohibits pigs or fresh pork products to be allowed into the U.S. from any country that is positive for ASF disease.

3. ASF has never been confirmed in the United States. In fact, ASF is not present anywhere in North or South America, and is only currently present in China, other Southeast Asia countries, Africa, and some Eastern European countries.

4. Caution is required when travelling to ASF positive countries. Anyone that travels to China or any of the other ASF positive countries should be aware of the impacts that could result if AFS were introduced in the U.S. Travelers should follow proper safety protocols and adhere to the guidelines set forth by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

5. Collaborative efforts are in place to keep ASF out of the United States. USDA is working with State Veterinarians and pork industry officials to develop a strategic plan to prevent ASF from entering the U.S., as well as to control the disease if an outbreak should occur. These efforts also include working very closely with Canada and Mexico.