African swine fever has reached the Western Hemisphere for the first time in 40 years. USDA hopes to prevent it from moving any further

The agency will establish a “protection zone,” insulating the lower 48 states from trade disruptions if the virus is detected in Puerto Rico.

On Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol announced it had seized 320 pounds of bologna at a border crossing near El Paso, Texas. The meat, hidden in the back seat of a 2012 Honda Odyssey, was being transported illegally from Mexico to be sold for profit in the U.S. It was at least the third such seizure of pork products this year, the latest in a long line of high-profile bacon banditry incidents. 

As it turns out, there’s good reason for all the swine surveillance. A deadly, incurable disease called African swine fever (ASF) has been detected in the Western Hemisphere for the first time in 40 years, and U.S. regulators are doing everything they can to keep it out of the country. “The outbreak … is much more deadly than we had in the Western Hemisphere back in the 80s,” says Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council. “So it’s very concerning from an animal health point of view.”

The virus poses no threat to humans and no food safety concern, but it can be devastating for pig populations: Currently, 27 states allow farmers to feed human garbage to their hogs, and ASF, which unlike Covid-19 can be transmitted via food, can persist in meat from infected pigs, in some cases for months, even after the meat has been cured. Regulators worry a farmer could inadvertently toss a contaminated pork belly (or, in this case, tube of bologna) into a hog pen, resulting in an outbreak. Nearly all infected swine die within 7 to 10 days of showing symptoms, which include high fever, skin lesions, and diarrhea. Pork products and food waste have been implicated in at least 10 ASF outbreaks in Europe since the 1950s.

Until recently, African swine fever was a relatively distant threat: It devastated China’s pig population back in 2019 and caused a handful of outbreaks in Europe, but it hadn’t made the leap to the Americas. Then, in late July, USDA announced it had confirmed infections in pigs in the Dominican Republic. The news sent shock waves through farming communities. “It’s not just our top 50 veterinarians that might be interested in this now,” Wagstrom says. “We have hundreds and hundreds of people joining calls and webinars,” and other programs. 

“If it’s detected in the mainland United States, the expectation is we would have virtually all of our trading partners, with the exception of very few that we already have some agreements with, cut us off immediately.”

Since the first positive case, outbreaks have been confirmed in 18 of 32 provinces in the Dominican Republic, and about 51,000 pigs have been slaughtered to prevent further spread. As a result, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced plans to establish a “protection zone” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to prevent the virus from spreading further. Haiti, which borders the Dominican Republic, has not confirmed any cases, though this may be more the result of limited surveillance than nonexistent virus. 

A positive case in the mainland United States would trigger an immediate 72-hour halt on all swine transport in the country, as veterinarians scramble to identify the source of the outbreak and contain it. If the identification occurred in a herd of domestic animals, it would likely trigger the immediate euthanization of the entire group. A single sick animal would have huge implications for international trade, too. “If it’s detected in the mainland United States, the expectation is we would have virtually all of our trading partners, with the exception of very few that we already have some agreements with, cut us off immediately,” Wagstrom says. This would represent a significant economic blow to the sector, given that Wagstrom estimates about 30 percent of all U.S. pork is exported, primarily to China, Japan, and Mexico. 

It’s less clear how trading partners would react if the virus were identified in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, neither of which are major pork producers or geographically contiguous with the mainland United States. With the establishment of the protection zone, USDA is hoping to insulate the lower 48 states from major trade disruptions. Within the zone, the agency plans to ramp up surveillance testing and restrict movement of live pigs and pork products to prevent the virus from traveling any further. If international regulators choose to recognize the zone, a positive case in either region may not trigger an immediate halt to all U.S. pork exports. Wagstrom says she expects the Netherlands and other European countries to follow suit, establishing protection zones in Caribbean territories. 

As we reported back in 2019, some experts have long regarded the eventual introduction of the virus to U.S. farms as an inevitability. Beagle teams stationed at the airport to sniff out contraband food items can’t greet every single flight, and the virus can also travel through ticks and wild boars. Then again, experts also predicted the virus would hit U.S. shores by mid-2020. Perhaps all the capicola confiscations are doing something, after all. 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.