Mon, Jan 20, 2020 - Page 7 News List

Virus that killed millions of China’s pigs poses global threat

Governments around the world are scrambling to protect against African swine fever, with travelers transporting meat representing the biggest danger

By Tom Polansek  /  Reuters, CHICAGO, Illinois

Illustration: Yusha

Bettie the beagle, a detector dog for US Customs and Border Protection, picked up the scent of pork on a woman arriving from China at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Soon the dog’s handler discovered and confiscated a ham sandwich in the purse of a passenger who had flown on a China Eastern Airlines flight from Shanghai.

The danger? That the food might be contaminated with African swine fever and spread the disease to the US.

China has lost millions of pigs in outbreaks of the disease, pushing its pork prices to record highs, forcing purchases of costly imports and roiling global meat markets.

“It’s very likely it may come here if we aren’t more vigilant,” said Jessica Anderson, the handler for the pork-sniffing dog and an agricultural specialist for the border protection agency.

Bettie is among an expanded team of specially trained beagles at US airports, part of a larger effort to protect the nation’s US$23 billion pork industry from a disease that has decimated China’s hog herd, the world’s largest.

Governments worldwide are scrambling to shore up their defenses as the disease spills over China’s borders. Their efforts underscore the grave threat to global agriculture.

African swine fever has spread to Southeast Asia and eastern Europe, with cases found in Belgium, Bulgaria, Cambodia, North and South Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Poland and Vietnam.

Around the globe, those countries and others that have so far sidestepped the epidemic are cracking down on travelers, increasing cargo screenings and banning meat imports.

Pork-producing countries stand to lose billions of dollars if the disease infects their industries, because outbreaks devastate farms and shut export markets. African swine fever does not threaten humans, but there is no vaccine or cure for infected pigs.

If the disease enters the US, the top pork-exporting nation with 77.3 million hogs, the government would struggle to protect the industry, participants in a four-day drill in September last year told reporters.

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

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) simulated an outbreak in Mississippi that spread to the nation’s top pig-producing states, including North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota. Veterinarians, farmers and government officials gathered at command centers where they tested their capacity to swiftly detect, control and clean up after an outbreak.

The experience showed that the US needs to increase its capacity to quickly test pigs for the disease and to dispose of the animals without spreading it, said Pyburn, who participated in the drill.

In China, the top global pork consumer, the disease has been devastating. The exact number of hog deaths is not known.

Rabobank estimated that the country lost up to 55 percent of its pig herd last year, but the Chinese government has reported smaller losses in the country’s US$1 trillion hog sector since the first case was reported in August 2018.

The US government is fielding dogs at airports and seaports, conducting outbreak-response drills and adding capacity to test pigs, while France and Germany are killing hundreds of thousands of wild boar that might carry the disease.

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