USDA to begin testing pigs for African swine fever

As we’ve reported, African swine fever, a deadly disease that’s spread like wildfire through China, is knocking at America’s door. Yesterday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it was stepping up efforts to stop it.

As part of a new “surveillance plan,” the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will begin testing for the virus. According to a news announcement on Thursday, the department will test high-risk samples from veterinary labs, sick or dead pigs at slaughters, and herds that have been exposed to feral swine or fed garbage.

USDA has already been working with officials in Canada and Mexico on a “coordinated approach” to preventing the spread of ASF, and increased canine detector teams at Customs and Border Protection. Those intrepid pooches are trained to sniff out cargo, passengers, and products arriving from countries affected by ASF, such as China, Vietnam, and Poland. The department has also restricted imports of pork from affected countries.

“An enhanced surveillance program will serve as an early warning system, helping us find any potential disease much more quickly,” said Greg Ibach, Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, in a release. “It will also minimize virus spread and support efforts to restore trade markets and animal movements as quickly as possible should the disease be detected.”

When Ibach says “restore trade markets,” he’s alluding to the fact that the U.S. is a major pork exporter, accounting for nearly 27 percent of global pork production exports in 2017, according to the U.S. Meat Export Association. If swine fever was detected here, those exports could come crashing down. Those effects could ripple out as China, the world’s largest pork consumer, has been snapping up American pork since its domestic supply has been depleted.

The virus, which is spread through contact with an infected animal’s body fluid, can live on people for days—and in frozen pork for years.
In March, despite a trade war and tariffs that drove import taxes on pork above 70 percent, China made its largest purchase of U.S. pork in nearly two years, the Wall Street Journal reports. That sent pork futures soaring. Analysts say the spread of the disease in China could drive up demand for American pork, and its price, through 2020.

The National Pork Producers Council, a trade association, applauded USDA’s announcement.

“With no vaccination available, prevention is our only defense,” David Herring, a North Carolina pork producer and the trade association’s president, said in a statement. “That’s why it’s so important we have a strong surveillance program, to ensure early notification of any spread of the virus.”

The trade association—which earlier this year canceled its annual pork expo as a precaution, because attendees hail from ASF-stricken countries—had previously requested the government fund 600 new customs inspectors.

When pigs are infected with ASF, they develop high fevers, bloody diarrhea, and skin lesions, and most die within days. The virus has ravaged China, where 200 million pigs could be culled or die from the outbreak this year—a full third of the country’s supply. Since it was first confirmed in August 2018, it has spread to every province in the country, and across southeast Asia.

The virus, which is spread through contact with an infected animal’s body fluid, can live on people for days—and in frozen pork for years, according to the Wall Street Journal. In March, concern over the spread led to the country’s largest-ever agricultural seizure—one million pounds of pork, originating from China, seized at the port of New York. So far, no cases have been reported in the United States, though there are fears it will arrive here in imported pig food.

While it’s true that no vaccine is available, cures do exist. European scientists recently announced the successfully vaccination of wild boars, while scientists at Scotland’s Roslin Institute—home of Dolly the Sheep—have been working to gene-edit resistance for years.

USDA will begin its ASF testing within weeks.

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Sam Bloch is a contributing writer for The Counter, where he covers business, environment and culture. He has also written for The New York Times, L.A. Weekly, Places Journal, Art in America and other publications, and is currently working on his first book, a work of narrative nonfiction about shade, for Random House.