CARLSBAD, CALIF. – During an April 10 presentation to attendees of the North American Meat Institute’s (NAMI) Meat Industry Summit, the lead executive of the National Pork Board (N.P.B.), discussed the sobering reality facing the global pork industry in the wake of African swine fever (A.S.F.) outbreaks outside of North America and the potential fallout if a case were to be discovered domestically.
William J. Even, chief executive officer of the N.P.B., an outbreak of A.S.F. in China that was announced this past August has spread across that country with devastating effects and new cases are emerging in Eastern Europe and many other countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia and South Africa. With half of the world’s hogs being produced in China, the outbreak of A.S.F. in that country is especially impactful and what it means for the global pork industry even more profound.
Preventing an outbreak of A.S.F. in North America is critical to the future success of the pork industry in the United States, as other countries grapple with filling the supply void created by the loss of hogs in the wake of the destructive disease.
In terms of numbers to illustrate the scale and current and potential impact of A.S.F. in China, approximately 688 million market hogs are slaughtered in the country each year compared to about 125 million in the United States. China’s sow herd in 2018 was 44.5 million while the U.S. sow herd was 6.1 million in 2019. Estimates from China’s ministry of agriculture are for the herd there to drop by 19% this year, which equates to 136 million market hogs not being born. Approximately 30% of the country’s hogs already have died, creating a loss of 129 million market hogs.
“It’s either going to be a boom or a bust for the U.S. hog industry moving forward,” Mr. Even said, adding that about 25% of U.S. production is currently shipped to international markets.
“African swine fever is the worst possible disease in swine, in the world,” said Mr. Even, who added that based on reports from producers where outbreaks have occurred, the spread of it across facilities is comparable to hot, molten lava.
“It moves slowly through your facilities and kills everything,” he said. “Once you have it, it just devours everything in its way.”
There is no vaccine or treatment for the disease, so sound biosecurity practices before, during and after an outbreak are critical. When the disease broke out in China this past year, the inability to deal with it effectively at the outset hindered efforts to limit the spread.
Coping with an outbreak is a challenge on several levels, including how to disinfect facilities as well as how and if a facility should be repopulated after an outbreak. Considering what Mr. Even called the disease viral plume coming off half of the pigs in the world, the conditions are pandemic in scale.
Mr. Even stressed the importance of three factors to attendees representing the meat industry, the first being pork is safe to eat and A.S.F. is not in the United States, he said, knocking on a nearby wooden podium. Secondly, A.S.F. is an animal disease and isn’t a food safety risk. Lastly, he pointed out that the United States does not allow the importation of animals or products from areas of the world where outbreaks have been confirmed.
He went on to caution that dealing with this virus is uncharted territory for everyone in the industry. There will be a need for a consistent voice to keep all the stakeholders informed and educated and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should be that voice, Mr. Even suggested.
If an outbreak were to occur in the United States, state veterinarians will assume the most vital roles and, in most states, they will be given more power than governors in terms of controlling borders and controlling the movement of animals within the state. Vets will be empowered to order state or national “stop movement” of hogs. Export markets would immediately be closed; pigs in quarantined areas would be euthanized; while widespread monitoring, testing and depopulation would ensue.
Meanwhile, consumer confidence in pork would invariably falter.
“And prices will go to market-clearing levels,” he said. “There’s only so much freezer space.”
Working with state animal health representatives and other stakeholders, the N.P.B. has worked with NAMI officials to develop a reaction plan if a case does break out, and communication and information dissemination will need to be the entire industry’s responsibility. Early detection is critical. To bolster surveillance efforts, 600 additional inspection officials are being trained to monitor ports and inspect shipping containers at entry points in the United States and 60 additional disease-detecting beagles are being trained and added to the system as well.
“We move a million head of pigs a day in the U.S., which makes tracking the impact of an outbreak especially challenging,” Mr. Even said.
The good news, he said, is the industry and government have worked together and are aligned and in agreement with prevention, detection and response plans. He urged all stakeholders to view two web sites to stay informed and share information with others: www.pork.org/FAD and www.securepork.org.
But he didn’t understate the impact of an outbreak in the United States and reiterated the urgency of vigilance and biosecurity.
“Can you imagine stopping the entire system, full stop, for an entire week or two weeks?” he asked. “What do you do with the pigs? What do you do at the packing plants? I’ve got confidence that if there is a case, God forbid, the United States is going to handle it extremely well.”
Mr. Even applauded the decision of the National Pork Producers Council (N.P.P.C.) for “doing the right thing” by announcing the cancellation of the 2019 World Pork Expo scheduled for this June. The last time the N.P.P.C. canceled the event was in 2001 after a global outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. While the precaution was prudent, it also has put the spotlight on the disease that previously was flying under the radar of the general public. He said to expect more people to ask questions about A.S.F.