Canada’s pork industry on high alert

African swine fever is spreading rapidly in other parts of the world and could cause catastrophic losses if it reached Canada. Here’s how the industry is trying to keep it out

It’s all hands — and paws — on deck to keep the African swine fever virus from getting into Canada. Photo: File/Getty Images

Pork industry officials have welcomed bumped up biosecurity — including more detector dogs — at airports as one of several strategies to keep African swine fever (ASF) out of Canada.

As an export dependent country, Canada is particularly at risk from the deadly virus. If it surfaced here, customers would quickly close their borders to Canadian product.

Why it matters: Pork industry officials say the introduction of the disease into the Canadian herd could put 100,000 jobs in jeopardy and cost the Canadian economy $24 billion.

Currently, ASF is present in Eastern Europe, China, Belgium and Vietnam, with China being hit the hardest.

And it appears to be spreading rapidly.

“Within the past four months there have been 1,000 cases in nine European countries. It’s moving in a significant way,” Dr. Egan Brockhoff, veterinary counsellor with the Canadian Pork Council, told the Ontario Pork annual general meeting.

The first outbreak in China was reported in August 2018 and although official reports are scarce, many industry observers believe the outbreak is far from contained.

Brockhoff was involved with a specific case of the disease in China. Out of 10,000 head, only 80 pigs survived the virus. In six weeks, the virus wiped out the farm, he said.

“The virus has no age or gender predilection and it affects all (pigs) equally. The clinical signs include fever, hemorrhage and weakness.”

He said producers often misdiagnose the virus in its early stages because it may look like other diseases.

Sniffing it out

The recent federal budget included provisions to more than double the number of detector dogs at Canadian airports to help keep food-borne hazards, including ASF out of the country. It provided $31 million over five years to add 24 food, plant and animal detector dogs to the 15 already working.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is also organizing an international ASF forum to discuss the threat. The event is scheduled for Ottawa April 30 to May 1.

While it seems unlikely, one of the ways this disease is hitchhiking outside of infected regions is through contaminated meat products smuggled into a country by unsuspecting tourists or in contraband shipments.

Information posted on the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) website says Chinese producers with sick pigs have been known to sell them illegally to avoid economic losses.

China owns almost half of the world’s domestic pigs and about one-quarter of production is in backyard operations with poor biosecurity and varied feed sources, including pork products from table scraps, the CPC says.

News media reports say U.S. border agents in March discovered one million pounds of smuggled pork products hidden in ramen noodle bowls and Tide detergent containers in 50 containers in a New Jersey port facility. It is not known at this time whether any of that pork was contaminated. But about two per cent of confiscated pork products in Taiwan ports of entry have carried ASF.

Brockhoff said it is important that pork producers and others in the Canadian pork industry educate themselves on the virus and implement biosecurity measures to keep it out.

Although humans are not susceptible to the virus, they can spread it on contaminated articles brought into the pigs’ environment, such as clothing and meat products.

The virus also spreads to pigs from contact with infected pigs, infected items in their environment and contaminated feed.

African swine fever can affect domestic pigs and wild boar, making it important to ensure that no pigs come into contact with wild boar.

Contaminated feed a risk

For Canadian producers however, the highest direct threat is through contaminated feed.

American research by Dr. Scott Dee show that the ASF virus, like Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED) can move around the world in contaminated feed.

For pork producers to ensure their feed supply is adequately treated and safe to use, they must hold it in quarantine.

“If you hold your feed ingredients at 20 C for 20 days, (farmers) can kill the virus,” said Brockhoff. “Producers I am working with are stocking extra product to allow themselves that 20 days. They are turning the temperature up in their feed mills to achieve that temperature to reduce the risk of virus introduction.”

The only way to kill the disease is to cook the feed. There is no vaccine or treatment available so biosecurity at the farmgate is of upmost importance.

Belgium has kept ASF out of barns

“Last week, 23 new infected carcasses of wild boar were found contaminated in Belgium,” said Brockhoff. “Not a single commercial farm in that area has been infected and biosecurity has been very helpful with this.”

For more information and for updates, visit the Canadian Pork Council’s African swine fever page online.

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