China’s current battle against an outbreak of African swine fever is taking place half a world away from Canada, but distance is no guarantee against the deadly virus’s ability to come here.
“Certainly there’s a possibility it could spread here. It’s spreading around the world,” said Canadian Pork Council executive director John Ross.
“The usual ways that we spread a virus around would apply to African swine fever.”
ASF is not a threat to humans but in pigs it is incurable and there is no vaccine. China has already culled more than 24,000 pigs in four provinces in efforts to control its spread and infection was confirmed last week at Romania’s largest pig breeding operation, forcing the culling of some 140,000 animals.
The fact that it has been found on premises thousands of kilometres apart in recent weeks has rung alarm bells throughout the global swine industry.
Possibilities that the virus could cross to North America are many and varied, said swine veterinarian Egan Brockhoff, and people could easily play a role.
“Our risk is largely associated on a couple core fronts. I think one of our huge risks is people bringing back pork products from Asia that contain the virus,” said Brockhoff.
ASF is also spreading across Eastern Europe. Besides Romania, it has struck in Hungary, Russia, Poland and Ukraine.
Curing and cooking pork from pigs with ASF does not kill the virus, said Brockhoff. Should waste product end up in contact with a pig, the link will be made.
“We know people are bringing pork products back into Canada all the time.… A lot of people don’t realize that it’s illegal to feed waste to pig. That’s one of the reasons that we don’t food waste to pig is the ability to transmit viruses.”
Ross said that possibility might be slightly elevated in coming weeks as foreign students return to Canadian universities.
“If they’re bringing back meat products — you know a little taste of home is always good — and maybe by some pathway an infected piece of meat was fed to an animal … that certainly is a risk that we would be concerned about.”
The chance of this happening may seem remote, but Canada’s experience with foot-and-mouth disease in the 1950s proves otherwise. That outbreak was caused by imported, infected meat.
The other key area of concern is ASF transmission to Canada via feed, feed ingredients or feed containers. Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus is thought to have entered the United States via contaminated feed containers, and ASF could possibly travel the same way.
Dr. Scott Dee, a veterinarian and researcher with Pipestone Veterinary Services in Minnesota, did extensive work in recent years proving some viruses can and do survive in feed and containers.
“The exact same thing could happen with this one,” said Brockhoff.
For hog production purposes, “our amino acids, vitamins and minerals are largely coming from China.
“Twenty years ago we weren’t bringing in so many amino acids. We weren’t bringing in so many vitamins and minerals and different nutrition packages from all over the world and now we are, so things have changed.”
Brockhoff and Ross recently met with representatives of the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to discuss the risk levels and safeguards against ASF transmission via feed and feed ingredients.
Ross said they are confident in the protocols surrounding the movement of meat, but feed raises other concerns.
“We are discussing it with some enthusiasm with the feed mills, the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada and with the food inspection agency but that’s work that’s in progress,” said Ross.
The ANAC is releasing a new biosecurity program, added Brockhoff.
“Right now industry and government are definitely working close … to sort of understand what’s moving where and what we can do to better inform people.”
About African swine fever
- a viral disease of pigs, warthogs, wild boar, peccaries
- highly contagious
- usually fatal
- no vaccine
- endemic in sub-Saharan Africa
- recent outbreaks in China, Romania
- also reported recently in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova
- virus found in all body fluids and tissues of infected pigs
- spreads by direct contact among infected pigs, ingestion of infected pig meat or products, biting flies and ticks, contaminated premises, vehicles, equipment, clothing
- symptoms include high fever, loss of appetite, redness on ears, abdomen and legs, respiratory distress, vomiting, bleeding from nose or rectum, abortion
- controlled through slaughter and disposal of infected animals
- is not a threat to humans