USDA seizes 1 million pounds of pork amid swine fever concerns

It's unlikely that the shipment could've contaminated U.S. hog farms. But it is the largest-ever seizure of agricultural goods in this country's history.

Officials at a New Jersey port have seized 1 million pounds of contraband Chinese pork amid fears of African swine fever contamination, Reuters reports.

Customs agents found the pork in more than 50 shipping containers arriving in Newark, New Jersey over the past few weeks, with the help of specially trained dogs. The products were concealed by laundry detergent and ramen noodle boxes and officials plan to incinerate them. A USDA spokesperson says the agency does not plan to test the seized product for African swine fever.

This represents the largest-ever seizure of agricultural goods in United States history, and its scale seems to signal that authorities are taking the virus’s threat very, very seriously. The disease has never been detected in domestic meat or live animals. While it does not affect humans, African swine fever is highly contagious among pigs and can be spread between animals through contaminated feed and carried from farm to farm on clothing and shoes. It could hypothetically even survive a plane flight from Beijing to Kansas City on the bottom of a passenger’s shoe. It is almost always fatal, and there is no treatment or vaccine.

USDA expects that African swine fever outbreaks will hasten consolidation in the Chinese hog farming industry.
To be clear, it seems very unlikely that last week’s seized shipments could have contaminated U.S. hog farms. Anthony Bucci, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection,  says that the shipments primarily contained “cured/dried” pork products, like ramen powder. None of the seized product was fresh. In order for the virus to have made its way from China to domestic pigs via ramen packets, it would’ve had to survive whatever process turns pork into powder and be fed directly to American swine. (According to USDA, African swine fever has been detected in a number of processed pork products.) This type of transmission isn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility—U.S. pigs do eat trash sometimes—but it may be a bit of a stretch.

Though Friday’s seizure may seem like an overabundance of caution, there’s a reason U.S. officials are being so aggressive in keeping untested pork imports out of the food supply. African swine fever has had a massive impact on China’s hog supply in a very short time. It was first identified in the Shenyang province in August of 2018, and it spread to seven other provinces in just two months, according to a USDA report. Since then, China has reported 115 outbreaks to the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) and culled about 1 million animals. That’s still a relatively small number. The country slaughtered 700 million pigs in 2017.

But USDA believes these numbers are vastly underreported: its semi-annual livestock report mentions Chinese media reports of outbreaks that never make it into the country’s official numbers, social media posts alleging the same, and one particularly egregious instance in which a hog manager was arrested for reporting an outbreak to the national government. It also mentions that American hog industry professionals have privately expressed concerns about carrying the virus back to this country after trips to hog conferences and trade shows in China.

The disease has never been detected in domestic meat or live animals.
National Hog Farmer reported that China’s hog herd was nearly 17 percent smaller in February of this year than it was a year prior. Some of this drop is due to fever-related culling, but USDA’s livestock report also names other, related factors. For instance, many small-scale farmers slaughtered their pigs earlier than usual out for fear of the virus and did not purchase new herds. Some breeders have reduced their inventories because buyers are suspicious of purchasing piglets from areas where the virus has been confirmed.

The USDA expects that African swine fever outbreaks will hasten consolidation in the Chinese hog farming industry. Large-scale growers are better at controlling the environment around their farms, the logic goes, so the big guys will stave off the disease that knocks out family farmers. Early data for 2019 seems to contradict that prediction, however. In January and February, 80 percent of total outbreaks occurred at farms with more than 1,000 animals.

In mid-February, cases of African swine fever were confirmed on three farms in Vietnam. The virus has since spread to a total of 19 provinces with 239 confirmed outbreaks, Reuters reports. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) has advised the country to declare a national emergency. In the first half of March, the fever was also confirmed in Romania, Ukraine, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, and Mongolia.

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.