A disease that has killed millions of China’s pigs is a global threat

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By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Bettie the Beagle, a US Customs and Border Guard detector dog, sensed the smell of pork on a woman who arrived from China at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

The dog handler soon discovered and confiscated a ham sandwich in the handbag of a passenger who had flown from Shanghai on a flight from China Eastern Airlines.

The danger? The food could be contaminated with African swine fever and spread the disease in the United States. China lost millions of pigs when the disease broke out, pushed pig prices to record highs, forced expensive imports, and caused turmoil in global meat markets.

“It is very likely that we will come here if we are not more vigilant,” said Jessica Anderson, head of the bastard and agriculture specialist at the border agency.

Bettie is part of an expanded team of specially trained beagles at US airports that are working hard to protect the country’s $ 23 billion pork industry from a disease that has decimated China’s largest herd of pigs in the world. According to Reuters reports from nine countries, governments around the world are striving to strengthen their defenses while the disease spreads across China’s borders. The efforts underline the great threat to global agriculture.

African swine fever has spread to Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe with cases in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines, Poland, Belgium and Bulgaria. Around the world, the countries and other countries that have avoided the epidemic are taking action against travelers, increasing cargo control and banning meat imports.

GRAPHIC: China’s crisis in the pig industry – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-SWINEFEVER-FARMERS/010090DR0KM/index.html

Pork-producing countries could lose billions of dollars if the disease infects their industry because of outbreaks that devastate farms and close export markets. African swine fever does not threaten humans, but there is no vaccination or cure for infected pigs.

If the disease invades the US, which exports the most pigs with 77.3 million pigs, the government would have difficulty protecting the industry, participants told Reuters in a four-day exercise in September.

“If this happens, it will destroy our industry as we know it,” said Dave Pyburn, senior vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) simulated an outbreak in the State of Mississippi that spread to key US pig producers, including North Carolina, Iowa, and Minnesota. Veterinarians, farmers, and government officials gathered in command centers to test their ability to quickly track, check, and clean up after an outbreak.

Experience has shown that the U.S. needs to increase its capacity to quickly test pigs for the disease and dispose of the animals without spreading them, said Pyburn, who participated in the exercise.

The disease was devastating in China, the world’s largest pork consumer. The exact number of deaths from pigs is unknown. Rabobank estimated that the country lost up to 55% of its herd of pigs last year. However, the Chinese government has reported lower losses in the $ 1 trillion pigs since the first case in August 2018.


The U.S. government is deploying dogs at airports and seaports, performing outbreak control exercises, and expanding pig testing capabilities. France and Germany kill hundreds of thousands of wild boar that could transmit the disease. France has also set up 132 kilometers of fences to keep wild boars away, and plans to tighten hygiene rules for pig farming, including the requirements for the disinfection of trucks that transport pigs.

Thailand killed pigs in a province near Myanmar where the disease was found. South Korea ordered soldiers on the North Korean border to catch wild boars while Vietnam deployed troops to ensure that infected pigs were killed.

Australia expelled Vietnamese travelers for smuggling pork and banning the import of pork products. Australia also sent consultants to the Pacific Islands to protect its closest neighbors from African swine fever. If such efforts fail, the country could cost over $ 2 billion ($ 1.4 billion) in five years, according to Australian Pork Limited, an industrial group.

“It is certainly the biggest commercial breeding threat we have ever seen and arguably the greatest commercial livestock threat we have seen,” said Australian Veterinary Chief Mark Schipp.

US officials plan to suspend domestic shipments of pigs between farms and slaughterhouses if African swine fever is found. The USDA and the states could issue orders to stop the movement of farm animals in certain areas, thereby reducing the disease.

The USDA said in a statement to Reuters that the September exercise identified shortcomings in its guidelines for states that detail when and how pigs can be restricted. The government is also increasing the number of laboratories testing for African swine fever.

“We found some gaps,” said Amanda Luitjens, who participated in the exercise and is an animal welfare inspector for Minnesota pork producer Christensen Farms. “The thought of making it to the US is scary.”


Meat transport travelers are at greatest risk of African swine fever spreading to the United States, as the disease can live in pork products for weeks, Pyburn said.

Contaminated feed can be fed to wild boar or farm animals in a practice known as garbage feeding that, according to the USDA, has caused outbreaks of swine diseases worldwide. Farmers in the United States are to be given permission to feed and cook pigs with leftovers containing meat to kill pathogens.

African swine fever can also spread from pig to pig, from bites from infectious ticks and from objects such as trucks, clothing and shoes that have come into contact with the virus.

China banned the transportation of live pigs from infected provinces and neighboring regions to contain the outbreaks. Pigs were also killed and the use of kitchen waste as pig feed was banned.

The disease has been found in food that was found at airports in South Korea, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and Northern Ireland.

It is believed that African swine fever reached the Philippines from contaminated pork smuggled from China. The Philippines are now carrying out mandatory checks on the hand luggage of passengers from countries with outbreaks.

The government of the province of Cebu in the center of the Philippines banned the import of products and products from the main Philippine island of Luzon to prevent swine fever. More than 60,000 pigs have died or been killed in Luzon as a result of the disease. The Philippine Department of Agriculture also banned garbage collection, which contained leftovers from airports, airlines and seaports.

In the United States, low entry port inspection rates increase the likelihood of illegal pork entering the country undetected, the USDA said in a report assessing the risk of African swine fever. The agency works with Customs and Border Protection to notify all U.S. ports every time it is confirmed that a new country is suffering from the disease.

Customs and Border Protection estimates that 3,148 people have to specialize in agricultural inspections at entry points such as airports, and there are only about 2,500.

The U.S. Senate last year approved the annual recruitment of 240 agricultural professionals per year until the labor shortage is resolved and the training and recruitment of 20 new dog teams per year. The government approved 60 new beagle teams for work at airports and seaports last year, which corresponds to 179 teams, according to the USDA.

These teams face a daunting challenge, said Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan democrat who introduced legislation with other lawmakers.

“Every day, millions of passengers and tens of thousands of containers that transport food cross the borders of our country,” he said.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek in Chicago, Enrico Dela Cruz in Manila, Colin Packham and John Mair in Sydney, Nigel Hunt in London, Gus Trompiz in Paris; editorship by Caroline Stauffer and Brian Thevenot)


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