Amid virus scare, even worse threat looms over pork

Edmonton Journal - - CITY - AMANDA STEPHEN­SON astephen­[email protected]­media.com Twit­ter.com/Aman­daMsteph

Al­berta hog farm­ers were warned to be dou­bly cau­tious with biose­cu­rity pro­ce­dures last week after a case of PED, a deadly virus that has killed mil­lions of piglets in the United States, ap­peared in the prov­ince for the first time.

But in­dus­try ex­perts say a far more fright­en­ing dis­ease is loom­ing on the hori­zon — one that, if it comes to Canada, could dev­as­tate the coun­try’s pork in­dus­try and send meat prices sky­rock­et­ing.

The dis­ease, called African swine fever, causes hem­or­rhagic bleed­ing, fever and death in wild and do­mes­tic pigs. Though it has not been found in North Amer­ica yet, it be­gan spread­ing through East­ern Europe in 2007 and in Au­gust 2018 made its way to China, the world’s largest pro­ducer of pork. In the last four months, African swine fever has moved rapidly across 23 Chi­nese prov­inces and more than 600,000 pigs have been culled in an ef­fort to halt its spread.

African swine fever, or ASF, poses no risks to hu­man health or food safety. But un­like porcine epi­demic di­ar­rhea (PED), the dis­ease that made head­lines when it turned up on a cen­tral Al­berta hog farm last week, ASF is a fed­er­ally re­portable dis­ease with se­ri­ous mar­ket ac­cess ram­i­fi­ca­tions. Whereas PED af­fects in­di­vid­ual farm­ers but has no im­pact on trade, a sin­gle case of ASF in Canada would cause coun­tries around the globe to close their bor­ders to Cana­dian pork ex­ports in­stantly.

In­fected farms would need to be placed un­der quar­an­tine, all an­i­mals be­lieved to be ex­posed would need to be de­stroyed, and a ma­jor trac­ing and surveil­lance program would have to be put in place be­fore mar­kets could be re­stored.

“African swine fever would elim­i­nate us from mar­ket,” said Darcy Fitzger­ald, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Al­berta Pork. “Which is a very scary thing when you’re a coun­try like Canada and you ex­port 70 per cent ($4 bil­lion worth in 2017) of the pork that you pro­duce.”

“That virus ter­ri­fies me,” said Dr. Egan Brock­hoff, a vet­eri­nar­ian with Prairie Swine Health Ser­vices who gave a pre­sen­ta­tion on the dis­ease to del­e­gates at the Banff Pork Sem­i­nar last week. “If the bor­der closed to­mor­row, what would we do with all that pork? We don’t have the barns in Canada to just hold all those pigs ... The whole sec­tor would just col­lapse.”

Part of what makes ASF so fright­en­ing is the way it is trans­mit­ted. While the virus spreads be­tween an­i­mals through con­tact, it can also be car­ried in in­fected meat prod­ucts — mean­ing there is a risk that a trav­eller could bring the dis­ease to North Amer­ica sim­ply by car­ry­ing a pack of sausage or other del­i­cacy in their lug­gage. Meat prod­ucts in­fected with African swine fever have already been con­fis­cated by bor­der con­trol agents at air­ports in Ja­pan, Tai­wan and Korea.

The dis­ease could also come to Canada in con­tam­i­nated feed, said Brock­hoff, since many of the vi­ta­mins and min­er­als found in com­mer­cially sold pig feed are pro­duced in China.

“That gives me a lot of worry,” he said. “We are try­ing to help farm­ers un­der­stand how to elim­i­nate risk. For ex­am­ple, there are stud­ies that have shown if you store your feed prod­ucts at 20 de­grees C for 20 days, the virus will be gone.”

Both the Cana­dian Pork Council and the Cana­dian Meat Council, which rep­re­sents pack­ers and pro­ces­sors, have been calling on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to in­crease the num­ber of snif­fer dogs at bor­der se­cu­rity at Cana­dian air­ports in an ef­fort to keep smug­gled meat prod­ucts out of the coun­try.

“There is a huge risk at air­ports,” said Jorge Cor­rea, vice-pres­i­dent of mar­ket ac­cess and tech­ni­cal af­fairs with the Cana­dian Meat Council. “We need to have more of these dogs, be­cause they ’re very ef­fec­tive.”

Even if North Amer­ica is suc­cess­ful in keep­ing ASF at bay, it’s pos­si­ble that Cana­di­ans will ex­pe­ri­ence its im­pact this year any­way — at the gro­cery store. China is home to nearly half the world’s pigs, and if the dis­ease’s spread through that coun­try con­tin­ues, the re­sult­ing mar­ket dis­tor­tion could drive up the world price of pork and even other meats.

“It’s very pos­si­ble, start­ing as early as this spring,” Cor­rea said. “Chi­nese con­sumers are los­ing con­fi­dence in their own prod­uct ... and that means Chi­nese con­sumers are go­ing to eat im­ported pork or they’re go­ing to ex­change pro­teins — it could be beef, it could be lamb, it could be chicken.”

ASF is sim­i­lar to bovine spongi­form en­cephalopa­thy (BSE, or mad cow dis­ease) in that it il­lus­trates the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the agri­cul­ture sec­tor to fac­tors be­yond farm­ers’ con­trol. One iso­lated case of a for­eign dis­ease, shipped to Canada in con­tam­i­nated feed or smug­gled in a suit­case or tracked in on some­one’s boot, could have se­ri­ous eco­nomic con­se­quences for the whole in­dus­try.

“Peo­ple travel more, goods and ser­vices move by truck and trans­porta­tion more today than they did even five years ago,” said Brent Moen, chair of Ed­mon­ton-based West­ern Hog Ex­change. “We live in a global mar­ket­place, but it’s ac­tu­ally a small global mar­ket­place — from the stand­point of how one ac­tion in one area can have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact in an­other area.”

The Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency is closely mon­i­tor­ing the spread of ASF in China and parts of Europe. In an email, spokesper­son Lisa Mur­phy said the CFIA is work­ing with the Canada Bor­der Ser­vices Agency to en­sure im­port re­stric­tions are in place to min­i­mize the chances of the virus’ en­try into Canada and con­duct­ing on­go­ing risk as­sess­ments of coun­tries from which Canada im­ports food or feed in­gre­di­ents.

The CFIA is also work­ing with in­dus­try ex­perts to en­sure ad­e­quate sup­ports are in place for all as­pects of a dis­ease out­break sce­nario, Mur­phy said.

We don’t have the barns in Canada to just hold all those pigs ... The whole sec­tor would just col­lapse.

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