Hog industry remains on guard against ASF

Sector officials say scientists are adamant that African swine fever ‘will certainly arrive on our shores’ at some point

An African swine fever outbreak in North America would cause “economic Armageddon” from trade embargoes, says a pork processing official.

Iain Stewart, senior vice-president and general manager of Maple Leaf Food’s pork complex, said the entire industry is working together on prevention, but no one knows if that will be enough to keep the deadly disease off the continent.

“Notwithstanding all the careful planning and scientific rigour brought to bear on this vexing problem, most scientists and epidemiologists we’ve talked to tell me that ASF will certainly arrive on our shores,” he told the House agriculture committee last week.

“Despite all our efforts, we find ourselves like the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in a dike trying to hold back a threat we can’t see until it has done its damage.”

He and Rejean Nadeau, chief executive officer of Olymel, outlined the work processors are doing to prevent the disease and stressed the importance of being ready.

Nadeau said just one case could be a $2 billion hit and a business loss of 50 percent. He said questions remain unanswered about how strong Canada’s border controls are. For example, he said surveillance at marine ports must be stepped up.

The government announced in its last budget the addition of detector dogs to check shipments from countries that have ASF, but the training takes time.

There are 15 dog teams working now, with 12 to be added by the end of the year and another 12 next year.

Fred Gaspar, director general of the Canada Border Service Agency, said in the last fiscal year the detector dogs conducted more than 5,000 searches that resulted in the interception of more than 7,000 food, plant and animal products.

He told the committee that pork products accounted for 25 to 30 percent of those.

Stewart said the OIE, the world animal health organization, has historically done a good job of handling crises such as this but a new paradigm must be adopted given how fast ASF could move around the world.

“Our goal of prevent and prepare is simply inadequate,” he said.

The new goal should be to remove the risk of financial ruin for producers and employees, he said.

Stewart urged the government and industry to think differently. For example, he asked why ASF would stop trade but porcine epidemic diarrhea doesn’t.

He said decision makers have to fully understand what’s at stake. There should be a “progressive architecture” that solves for risk and allows trade to continue.

Work is underway on a vaccine but it isn’t complete yet. Stewart said a kill step in meat should also be in development.

“There simply is no overreacting to ASF. If trends continue, the virus could become truly pandemic and endemic. Therefore, we need to think differently and boldly. We need to make everything possible and not be bound by what seems doable.”

Chief among the priorities should be a way to continue to allow trade under certain situations. Stewart said “aggressive deployment” of zoning and biosecure compartmentalization should be immediate in the event of a positive case.

China has lost an estimated 15 percent of its sow herd and while some are looking at that as an export opportunity others say the loss is so massive that it can’t be replaced.

Stewart said directing all the rest of the world’s exports to China wouldn’t fill the hole that’s been left.

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