Mon, Mar 25, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Swine fever outbreaks go unreported in rural China

African swine fever might be more widely spread than reported, as several pig farmers said that local officials refused to acknowledge the disease or even test their animals

By Dominique Patton  /  Reuters, BAODING, China

Illustration: Yusha

When pigs on the Xinda Husbandry breeding farm in northern China began dying in growing numbers in early January, it looked increasingly likely that the farm had been struck by the much-feared African swine fever, an incurable disease that has spread rapidly across the country since last year.

However, after taking samples from some pigs, local officials in the Xushui District of Baoding, about an hour’s drive from Beijing, said their tests came back negative, said Sun Dawu (孫大午), chairman of Hebei Dawu Agriculture Group, the farm owner.

As hundreds of pigs began dying daily on the 20,000-head farm, the company obtained a test kit that showed some positive results for the virus.

However, after further lobbying by Xinda, officials just offered the company subsidies for farm buildings and other investments, Sun said.

Sun’s account of events and pictures taken by farm staff of dead pigs lying in rows and a pile outside the farm could not be independently verified.

Xushui District said in a faxed response to Reuters on Tuesday last week that it was opening an investigation into the case, adding that it had found some “discrepancies” with the reported version of events.

“If there is illegal behavior, relevant departments will handle it according to the law,” the statement from the local government’s investigative committee added.

Farmers and other industry insiders told Reuters that China’s African swine fever epidemic is far more extensive than official reports suggest, making the disease harder to contain, potentially causing pork shortages and increasing the likelihood that it will spread beyond China’s borders.

“Our full expectation is that the number of cases is under-reported,” said Paul Sundberg, executive director at the Swine Health Information Center in Ames, Iowa, which is funded by US pork producers. “And if there’s so much of that virus in the environment in China, then we are at increased risk of importing it.”

China does not permit the commercial sale of African swine fever test kits, although many are now available. Official confirmation must come from a state-approved laboratory.

“Public confirmation of disease is the government’s job,” Sun told Reuters at his company headquarters in Xushui late last month.

Frustrated by the lack of action and mounting losses from the disease, Sun eventually published details of the suspected outbreak on China’s Twitter-like platform Weibo on Feb. 22.

Two days later, it became the first African swine fever case in Hebei Province, one of the north’s top pig producing regions, to be reported by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, about seven weeks after the company said it had alerted local authorities.

By then, more than 15,000 pigs on the Xinda farm had already died, Sun said, and the company even sold on thousands of pigs — potentially spreading the disease further.

Sun said officials did not explain why their first test had been negative, although he suggested that it might have been because they took samples from live pigs on the farm and did not test the dead ones.

The ministry did not reply to a faxed request for comment on the case.

It has warned against covering up outbreaks of the disease, and in January highlighted two large farms that had tried to conceal outbreaks.

Detailed accounts of unconfirmed outbreaks shared with Reuters by two other farm company managers suggest Sun’s experience is not unique.

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