Buying pork from Poland ultimately the right move

It is painful to watch the spread of African swine fever through parts of Asia and Europe, yet Canada’s decision to keep accepting imports of pork from Poland is pragmatic.

Since Canada would follow the same procedures Poland is ostensibly now employing, there is a duty to play this out.

ASF has never been found in Canada, but it would be a serious threat to the $3.8 billion in pork exports should it be discovered in the hog population.

In Poland, the situation is in crisis. Pork exports are $2.2 billion in a country with a gross domestic product one third of Canada’s. There have been 213 reported outbreaks since 2014 (108 last year alone), resulting in more than 43,000 hogs — wild and domestic — being culled.

Yet the Polish government has succumbed to political pressure by those aghast at the number of hogs killed and the cull has been scaled back.

ASF is a highly contagious viral disease that spreads through direct or indirect contact between hogs, through blood, secretions and excretions. The virus can survive in tissue for several months in fresh pork and pork products. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency reports ASF often spreads among countries through people feeding pigs infected food scraps. It can also be spread through farm equipment, clothing and footwear and certain types of ticks.

There is no treatment or vaccine, but it is only a threat to pigs, and is not a human or food safety hazard.

Unlike porcine epidemic diarrhea, which sweeps through barns rapidly and thus is quickly discoverable, ASF moves slowly. It can spread to other properties before it’s discovered.

To deal with the virus, Poland created three zones: one is free of ASF, a second has seen ASF in the wild boar population and a third has confirmed presence in both commercial pigs and wild boars.

Canada accepts meat only from zones free of ASF.

Should the virus be found in Canada, zones would also be set up here. The United States (which imports $1.2 billion in Canadian pork annually) and Japan are the top destinations. Canada has an agreement with the U.S. to maintain trade in cases of pork disease through zoning procedures and is pursuing such an agreement with Japan.

Zoning worked a few years ago during Canada’s brush with avian influenza.

The federal government is spending $31 million to increase the number of sniffer dogs at airports to prevent the illegal import of meat products.

There is an argument that it’s dangerous for Canada to continue to accept chilled meat from Poland because it’s hard to know how vigilant authorities there will be.

It’s a legitimate question. Corruption is not rampant in Poland but neither can vigilance be assumed. Transparency International places Poland 36th in world corruption. (Canada sits at ninth.)

Amnesty International reports that the media faces pressure from the government, which appoints the head of public broadcasters. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders said the public media in Poland has been “transformed into government propaganda mouthpieces.”

Still, the zone system has been shown to work. And pork exports are so important to Poland that officials there have strong motivation to act appropriately.

Canada must monitor the political situation to be sure the zoning procedures can be trusted.

Ultimately, if Poland is making a genuine effort to follow the rules in its quest to deal with ASF, Canada needs to oblige if we are to have the same expectations should the virus be found here.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

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