Many human infectious diseases travel at the speed of the fastest airplane. It’s critical for those involved in the animal protein business — be it beef, poultry or pork anywhere on the globe — to remain vigilant of what’s happening with international neighbours struggling with highly infectious diseases in animals, and learn. No one in the cattle business will forget what happened with BSE, which by all accounts is not highly infectious, yet left improperly managed morphed into a North American travesty. Parallels exist with highly infectious diseases like foot-and-mouth disease and African swine fever (ASF), especially in terms of how highly infectious they are, how easily they spread, and the excruciating effect they potentially play on international meat and grain markets. Throw in the political dimension of competing tariff regulations and things go to “hell in a handbasket” very quickly.
The first East Asian outbreak of ASF reported in early August 2018 from Liaoning, China evolved into 57 outbreaks affecting 14 Chinese provinces and municipalities — some separated by thousands of kilometres. The world’s swine herd is estimated at roughly 250 million head with 50 to 55 per cent of that number produced in China.
With 40 per cent of China’s pigs raised in backyards, the ability to contain the spread of African swine fever becomes very difficult. Geographic dispersion of the cases, including very large commercial operations, suggests the entire country is involved. Cases of ASF in feral hogs (wild pigs) in Russia, Romania, Bulgaria and Belgium, plus discovery of ASF virus in imported pork products in Korea is very troubling and may be a harbinger that Europe and all of southeast Asia sits on a tipping point of a major epidemic.
In September, officials in Belgium confirmed the presence of ASF in two wild boar in a town roughly 10 km from France. The presence of wild boar throughout the region has stoked fears the disease could spread into the Netherlands, then Germany and throughout the continent. Based on the speed at which ASF spreads, the distances live animals are transported and the wide variety of pork products illegally shipped across international borders are not strong indicators the disease will be brought to heel soon. More than 210,000 animals have been killed so far. Total numbers will probably reach into the millions.
ASF is a hemorrhagic disease of pigs, warthogs, European wild boar and American feral pigs. Swine of all age groups are susceptible to ASF. Clinical signs of infection vary from mild to fatalities reaching 100 per cent. Death occurs within two to 10 days on average. Transmission occurs through biting flies and ticks, direct contact with other swine, and garbage containing unprocessed infected pig meat. An especially troubling characteristic of ASF is it’s persistence in processed feed and the environment for extended periods.
African swine fever virus is highly robust with a half-life in urine and feces at cool temperatures up to 15 days. The virus persists in uncooked pork for weeks and stays viable in pig carcasses for months. Pigs recovering from ASF shed virus for up to a year. The disease infects wild boar and is spread directly by ticks, and contaminated clothing and tools used by hunters. Aerosol transmission has not been ruled out. With no vaccine available, early detection and intervention are key to containing the disease.
China has the world’s largest hog breeding herd and consumes close to 54.7 million tonnes annually. Beef consumption is around 7.9 million tonnes. If ASF spreads, it potentially will put a large dint in China’s domestic pork supply, pushing prices higher and driving consumers to seek out other sources of protein. ASF is not harmful to human health. Amidst a backdrop of food scandals, Chinese consumers may avoid domestically produced pork, opening the door to imported pork and alternate proteins.
The outbreak of ASF has occurred in the midst of an ongoing U.S.-China trade dispute, with China imposing two rounds of retaliatory tariffs on U.S. pork exports at a time of record U.S. pork production. The trade and supply environment has weighed heavily on the U.S. hog market; however, the announcement of fresh ASF outbreaks had an immediate impact on prices with a sharp upwards turnaround in U.S. hog futures.
The spread of ASF potentially represents the biggest global animal health story ever. Few openly talk about it. It’s a story that should receive a fair hearing from industry stakeholders at all levels.
Curt Hudnutt, executive vice-president of rural banking, North America, at Rabobank, said at the 2018 Ag Outlook Forum in Kansas City, Missouri, “It brings a tremendous opportunity for the animal protein complex that will have knock-on effects to corn and soy production.”
Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at INTL FCStone, said, “In China, production areas are primarily in northeastern areas. The Chinese people love fresh pork, so slaughterhouses are in southern, populated areas. Hogs with the disease are being transported 1,400 to1,500 miles to the south through high-production areas.”
Suderman explains, “Pork is the number one meat of choice in China; it’s the number one driver of food inflation, and food inflation is the number one driver of social unrest around the world — something China wants to avoid when they’re in a battle with the United States over tariffs.”
Economists within the U.S. Department of Agriculture clearly state that ASF’s expansion into Europe remains a big question mark, and whether the disease might ultimately affect all sectors of agriculture.
The global meat industry is watching how events unfold. Any significant impact to pork production and consumption in China will create a ripple effect, consequences of which will touch all major suppliers of edible protein. The Canadian beef industry needs to watch and learn.