Is Canada ready for African swine fever?

This week The Western Producer takes a look at the scary prospect of African swine fever being found in Canada.

John Ross sits through a lot of meetings.

As executive director of the Canadian Pork Council, Ross is continually in talks with provincial pork associations, American hog producers and other livestock organizations in Canada.

Over the last few months, the major topic at those meetings has been African swine fever.

Ross knows the disease represents a major threat to Canada’s hog industry, but he’s tired of the doom-and-gloom scenarios.

“I go to these meetings all the time and we only talk about the bad stuff, how bad things could be. It tends to be a very negative discussion,” Ross said in late March, after a day of meetings in the United States with American pork producers.

“We are actually very, very good at animal health in Canada. We’ve made investments. We have (livestock) traceability. We have animal health labs that know how to diagnose … we have national labs … we have a veterinary infrastructure. We have a lot of the parts of the puzzle in place.”

Canada may have an excellent system but it’s difficult for pork producers to relax right now. There are no vaccines or treatments for ASF, a viral disease that causes fever, internal bleeding and high death rates in swine.

It has been spreading in China and Eastern Europe and is now in Vietnam. Jack Shere, chief veterinary officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, believes it will soon be present in all of Southeast Asia. Other experts are convinced it will eventually move into Germany and most of Western Europe.

The priority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the pork council is keeping it out of Canada. But pork industry representatives and veterinarians are also discussing what would happen if ASF arrived, how to respond and how it would affect pork exports.

“It’s a far more of a serious issue for us than the rest of the world,” said Ted Bilyea, who worked for Maple Leaf Foods for 34 years.

“We’re in this unique category, maybe us and Denmark, where we have to export to survive.”

Estimating the impact of something before it happens is nearly impossible. However, there’s a fear that a positive case of ASF could prompt foreign buyers to stop importing pork from Canada.

That’s unlikely to happen.

Canada has an agreement with the U.S., and is working on a similar deal with Japan, where it would be possible to have ASF and export pork to those countries.

In January 2013 the federal government announced that Canada and the U.S. had signed a deal on animal disease zoning.

The agreement recognizes that both countries are capable of dealing with a foreign animal disease outbreak and are able to contain it within a certain region.

“The country experiencing the outbreak notifies the other … about the outbreak taking place, and the control measures put in place, including the establishment of an affected zone,” the USDA said in an email. “The bilateral arrangement indicates that it is the intention of both countries to recognize zoning decisions for ASF.”

If an ASF outbreak happened, say in Quebec, the U.S. chief veterinary officer would have the authority to recognize Canada’s disease control measures and zoning and then approve pork imports from parts of Canada that were free from the virus.

The agreement has already been used. When avian influenza was detected on North American poultry farms a few years ago, Canada accepted U.S. zoning for the disease and vice-versa.

The Canadian government has a similar agreement with the European Union. That’s why Canada continues to import pork from Poland, which has dozens of farms with ASF.

If Canada lost faith in Poland’s ability to control the disease, the government could reject imports of Polish pork. For now, Canada continues to recognize zones that are free from ASF in Poland.

The U.S. deal is critical because Canada sold $1.25 billion in pork to the U.S. last year.

The other big pork market for Canada is Japan, worth $1.27 billion in 2018.

An industry source said the federal government is pushing hard for a bilateral zoning deal with Japan, so pork exports could continue if ASF arrived.

“Canada is engaging with the Japanese,” said Ross, who didn’t elaborate on the negotiations. “Not only the Japanese market but what other possibilities are out there (for bilateral zoning deals).”

Even with such agreements in place there’s a chance of political interference, in which a U.S. senator from a pork-producing state or President Donald Trump refused to honour the zoning deal.

But science, evidence and strong relationships between the decision makers on both sides of the border should make a difference, Ross said.

“The chief veterinary officer for the United States and the chief veterinary officer for Canada have never been strangers,” Ross said. “They meet all the time.”

A USDA official said in an email that the chief veterinarians would likely be the decision makers.

“We would expect both CVOs to have the final authority to recognize each other’s zones under the framework.”

If ASF is found in Canada in an area with a high concentration of hog barns, managing an outbreak would be trickier.

“Do I have it in a hog-dense area or an area that’s very isolated? Did I find it in the first week or had it for a month?” Ross said.

“But I’m confident … we have all the necessary pieces (to respond)…. We’re going to find out how it (the system) works. If we have to go to war, then we’ll know.”

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