The threat of African Swine fever (ASF) present in Europe has led to a cull of 120,000 pigs in Bulgaria. In July alone, there were 300 new outbreaks reported in the country with concern now growing over the fate of the country’s entire population of 600,000 pigs.
The European Commission released a statement at the time outlining Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania as present high-risk areas in the global fight against the virus.
African swine fever is a hemorrhagic disease in pigs, originating in warthogs and the ticks which feed on them. The virus is highly-resilient and contagious. While humans are unaffected by the virus, it has already been catastrophic for the global pork market.
China, the largest single pork producer in the world, has experienced sweeping and devasting outbreaks. By year’s end, 200 million pigs are expected to die, according to the research group Rabobank. The social and economic consequences have already been withering to rural communities in the country, and evidently the virus has eluded efforts at containment.
Senior protein analyst for Rabobank, Christine McCracken, speaking in an interview, explained why China is struggling. “They’ve had a hard time repopulating herds. It’s hard to decontaminate a facility in a short amount of time. Generally, it takes at least six months, sometimes three years, to decontaminate a site.”
Putting things in perspective, McCracken explained the scale of the issue. “Half of the world’s pigs are in China and half of those are now eliminated, we think. Roughly a quarter of the world’s pigs have now perished. That is a huge loss. It will leave the world quite obviously short of protein. It’s something that should be a big factor as we move into 2020.”
McCracken also said that at the same time as China’s pork production declines, possibly by as much as 30 percent, ASF is adding uncertainty to trade and production prospects in other parts of the world.
Global markets will be distorted by the increase in China’s pork imports, and the decrease in demand in China for animal feed, in particular soy meal. Chinese producers of pig nutritional products will need to sell their surpluses to compensate for the over-supply of soybean products and nutritional supplements (such as magnesia, calcium, food phosphate, vitamin A or protein for example).
But the increase in exports from China to Europe carries the risk of creating additional outbreaks. The virus is notoriously contagious and difficult to eradicate. The need for increased sanitary checks and risk management is clear. Dr. Scott Dee, a U.S. veterinarian for Pipestone Veterinary Services in Minnesota, recently stated that the virus could be carried “by way of animal feed ingredients imported from ASF-positive countries.” According to him, “the virus can be transmitted through dust on farmers’ shoes and clothing, adding that harvested grains are sometimes dried on the open road, thus increasing the risk of contamination.”
“Making the situation even more challenging, the disease is spreading [from China] into Southeast Asia, causing additional production losses,” McCracken said. The disease has spread to Vietnam and Cambodia, and could move further into Southeast Asia, as no cure or vaccine exists.
“It’s really hard to see how this is going to end,” McCracken explained. “Though at some point there will just be better, more ‘biosecure’ facilities that have less of a chance of getting the virus.”
For the moment, this is not the case. The European commission is in need of intensified efforts regarding outbreak containment and prevention. A sure way to protect the European market from certain risks would be to curtail dangerous imports from China, cutting the spread off at the source.
Additionally, borders need to be more tightly managed, in particular as this relates to high-risk areas in Europe. Countries misleading the international community, through dishonest state reportage on outbreaks should be held accountable. Further attention needs to be placed on the subject, as the visibility of the situation within the media cycle has been poor at best.
Along with the threat to pork and agriculture markets, the virus is putting political relations under strain. At the start of August, a dispute emerged when Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borissov, began blaming the national ASF outbreak on Romanian tourists bringing it across the border.
Bulgarian veterinary authorities have said that likely wild boars swimming from Romania and across the Danube into Bulgaria were responsible for spreading the disease. Whatever the cause, such episodes highlight the complexity of containment and also the heightened stress levels among those who understand the scale of the problem.