African swine fever: It’s not the ‘lazy’ virus — it’s unthinking people

African swine fever is spreading like wildfire in Asia, but it’s because people are bringing contaminated pork home

This photo from the Canadian Border Services Agency website shows “Detector Dog Ambrose” with pork products discovered by the sniffer dog, which is deployed at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
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African swine fever continues to cut a devastating swath across Asia as North American pork industry officials work to keep the deadly disease off our shores.

Dr. Egan Brockhoff
Dr. Egan Brockhoff photo: Supplied

“The African swine fever virus is spreading very quickly throughout the Southeast Asia region,” Dr. Egan Brockhoff, veterinary counsellor for the Canadian Pork Council said in a Sept. 20 interview.

“It was extremely sad to see South Korea announce its first case this week. It was only a few weeks ago that the Philippines made its announcement (that it had infected herds).

“This virus isn’t going away. It’s continued to spread extensively.”

African swine fever — a virulent disease that is harmless to humans but deadly for pigs — started making global headlines in August 2018 when the first cases of the virus were reported in China, the world’s largest hog producer.

Since then, the disease has swept across the country, decimating up to 40 per cent of China’s 440-million-head hog herd. The disease has also spread to Mongolia, which has lost about 10 per cent of its pig population, and Vietnam, which has culled over two million pigs so far this year.

The disease was first confirmed in the Philippines on Sept. 9, only to be followed a week later by South Korea’s confirmation on Sept. 17. Since then, over 15,000 pigs have been culled in South Korea, with an additional 7,000 culled in the Philippines.

Other outbreaks have also been reported this year in European countries such as Belgium, Hungary, and Russia, among others.

Brent Bushell. photo: Supplied

“It’s a hard disease to contain,” said Brent Bushell, general manager of Western Hog Exchange. “It’s highly transferrable in many different ways, and there is no cure.”

But that rapid spread isn’t the result of a highly contagious virus. In fact, African swine fever isn’t very infectious at all, said Brockhoff.

“This is a virus that is slow and lazy,” he said. “It’s by no means anywhere near the most infectious virus we deal with.

“But it’s been extremely successful, because African swine fever is a human-driven disease. Human activity really moves this virus.”

As people move infected pigs, transport pigs in infected vehicles, and carry infected meat products from country to country, the disease has spread with them, he said.

“Those are the little things that have all added up to the sum of this extensive movement.”

Industry response

One of the biggest culprits in its spread is swill feeding.

“In Canada, feeding restaurant and commercial waste is not permitted, but feeding kitchen waste is a very common activity throughout the world,” said Brockhoff, adding some countries have requirements for heat treating commercial food waste, but “that doesn’t mean it’s always applied properly.”

People bringing home pork products are the cause of the rapid and continuing spread of the virus that causes African swine fever. This infographic is one part of the federal government’s effort to prevent that from happening here. photo: Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Part of the reason African swine fever is so deadly is because the virus only dies through cooking — not curing, smoking, freezing, salting, or any other method used to store meat safely.

“If it’s not cooked, the virus won’t die, so if that food waste is then given to pigs, they run the risk of infecting those animals,” said Brockhoff.

As a result, the biggest carrier of African swine fever is actually travellers.

“There are a lot of ways it can be transferred, but the biggest concern is tourism — people bringing back uncooked or cured meat products,” said Bushell.

“Quite often, people don’t see the risk in that and they do it innocently enough, but it’s a no-no in the world of African swine fever.”

Over the past year, the Canadian pork industry and the Canadian government have been working closely with their U.S. counterparts to ramp up border inspections at international airports and fining travellers who don’t declare meat products.

In March, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced an additional $31 million in funding for more meat-sniffing dogs at Canadian airports.

“There’s been a lot of work between both the United States and Canada together on preventive measures for African swine fever,” said Bushell. “When you see the amount of effort and energy that has been put forth by both Canada and the United States as a whole working together to come up with protocols to keep it out, I think we’ve done a really good job.

“It’s a very high-priority disease for us to keep out of Canada for sure.”

But despite its best efforts, Canada’s pork industry may be waging a losing war against the disease.

“Industry and government have really worked very closely to push the messaging in a significant way. But does that mean every traveller coming into Canada is getting the message? No. Probably not,” said Brockhoff.

“We have to continue to push that message as much as possible. There’s just going to be a ton of work to do on this, and it’s not going to stop.

“This virus is not going away.”

On-farm biosecurity

And if African swine fever does make its way to Canada?

“That would be the worst-case scenario of all scenarios. It would be absolutely devastating,” said Brockhoff. “Our borders would close immediately to our exports. And if our borders close and we no longer have markets for our pork products, then processors aren’t going to buy those pork products. And if people aren’t making money at it, they’re not going to stay in it.

“The ripple effect is going to be massive and devastating. We’d have a national crisis in fairly short order.”

Right now, Canada exports roughly 70 per cent of pork raised here, but “once you contract African swine fever, nobody wants your pork,” said Bushell.

“If we reduced the amount of hogs by 50 per cent in Canada, we wouldn’t go hungry domestically, but we would lose our export market. It would mean the complete devastation of the industry.”

In addition to the work being done at international airports, the pork industry has also been preparing for market recovery and ensuring that producers have access to funding to help with cash flow if Canadian herds were to contract the disease.

“We have seen such a great response. Certainly the government of Canada is very focused on this,” said Brockhoff.

“It’s making sure it has plans in place to try to deal with this as best it can.”

But pork producers have a role to play in this as well. In Canada, a “huge percentage” of the vitamins and trace minerals that go into livestock feed come from countries that are host to foreign animal diseases, including African swine fever. (Some livestock protein powders out of China are even made from hog blood.)

So producers should work closely with their vets to reduce their risks, by developing a biosecurity program for their feed and feed mills and buying local feed products as much as possible. They should also work with any foreign workers on their farms to mitigate the risk.

“For a lot of us on farms here in Alberta, we have foreign workers coming into our farms who are from countries affected with African swine fever,” said Brockhoff. “It’s absolutely critical that we educate our staff and help them understand the risks.”

Any foreign workers returning from an affected country should have a mandatory downtime before entering the farm, and any clothing and footwear worn there should be properly washed and disinfected.

“We also need to talk to people who are returning to our farms about those illegal meat products to make sure they’re not bringing illegal meat products in from their countries of origin,” said Brockhoff.

“For many of them, those would be comfort foods, so reminding them of the importance of not bringing back those little snacks is important.”

But ultimately, it comes down to effective day-to-day on-farm biosecurity, said Bushell.

“Most producers have a very strong set of protocols, and as long as they’re paying attention to them, that’s the best defence they have to deal with it,” he said.

“Once you have it, you have it. And it would be devastation for North America to have it. So we’re doing everything possible to ensure that it doesn’t show its face here in North America.”

About the author


Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.



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