Diane DeWitte

Earlier this month, the swine industry recognized an anniversary of sorts. A year ago, on Aug. 3, 2018, the Chinese government reported an occurrence of African swine fever in their country. At that time, many North American producers and industry-affiliated folks had no idea about ASF. The disease was covered in veterinary textbooks and materials defining emerging and exotic diseases; but very few had seen it or had any experience with it. 

Today we know much more about it.  From the National Pork Board, these are the plain facts about this disease the United States’ swine herd has never faced:

  • The virus is not dangerous to humans, it only affects pigs (domestic and wild).
  • It is hardy and can survive for long periods. Dried, frozen and cured pork products are at high risk of carrying the virus.
  • The virus can be spread through feeding pigs swill containing undercooked contaminated pork.
  • Adhering to strict farm biosecurity measures will decrease the chances of the disease spreading or entering at all.
  • Strict border control can help reduce the chances of ASF being introduced into a country.
  • There is currently no effective vaccine against the virus.

Industry action this past year

The United States swine population has never been exposed to AfricanS wine Fever, and because of that, an ASF outbreak would be catastrophic — not only to our pig farmers and their herds, but to American trade with other countries. Currently, the United States exports about 27 percent of its pork production. 

The National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council, along with key state pork producer associations, have led the charge to bolster U.S. preparation for ASF. Collaborating with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, the American Feed Industry Association, the North American Meat Institute, the U.S. Meat Export Federation, and the Swine Health Information Center, NPB organized coalition groups to coordinate efforts to prevent ASF entry into the United States. These coalition groups target specific elements of an ASF outbreak response, including feed, trucking, mortality disposal, and health protection.

In addition, NPB has earmarked checkoff funds for African swine fever research and provided to-the-minute updates to producers.  Fact sheets, newsletters, country disease status information and dedicated websites are some of the methods NPB implemented to educate producers.  

Pork Checkoff has a text alert service which is designed for a major pork industry crisis. This text alert service would notify individuals (who have signed up for it) in the event of a major industry crisis. Text service participants would be able to get information right away and know where to turn for accurate information dealing with the crisis situation. 

To join NPB’s text alert service, simply text PORKCRISIS to 97296.  Participants will be asked to reply yes with “Y,” and then be sent a follow-up text requesting zip code. When the zip code is provided, text alerts can be targeted specifically to that area. 

Federal action

In collaboration with the swine industry and animal health professionals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped up border protection. Since last August, USDA has worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry — paying particular attention to cargo, passengers and products arriving from China and other ASF-affected countries. The department has increased detector dog teams, the Beagle Brigade, with U.S. CBP to sniff out illegal products at key U.S. commercial sea and airports. It has also restricted imports of pork and pork products from affected countries.

In May 2019, USDA announced it is enhancing African swine fever surveillance efforts. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will work with states and veterinary diagnostic laboratories to add ASF testing to the existing Classical Swine Fever testing.

“This enhanced surveillance program will serve as an early warning system, helping us find any potential disease much more quickly,” USDA representative Greg Ibach explained. USDA will also work with state partners to identify and investigate incidents involving sick or dead feral swine to determine if they should be tested for ASF or other foreign animal diseases.

While the United States does not have a wild boar population, the population of feral pigs in 35 states tops 7 million.  Feral pigs cause an estimated $2 billion in damage to agricultural lands by rooting and wallowing, and they also pose a threat as potential carriers of disease. In the 2018 farm bill, the USDA allocated $75 million for feral swine eradication and control. This year, nearly $34 million of it is earmarked for public and private partnerships to eliminate feral hogs in select areas of 10 southern states. 

International cooperation

Neither of our neighbors, Canada nor Mexico, has been exposed to African swine fever. In a collaborative effort to protect the entire North American swine population, all three countries have been working together to devise a plan to prevent the virus’ entry into our pigs. 

In May 2019, Chief Veterinary Officers from the three countries participated in an international ASF forum and presented a unified resolve to keep the continent free of ASF.  Initial plans set the stage for promoting readiness to enable swift action in the case of an ASF outbreak; strengthening biosecurity measures to prevent ASF entry; developing useful communication strategies to keep international neighbors informed; and  creating trade agreements which will lessen the negative impact of an ASF outbreak.

African Swine Fever is ravaging China and other Asian countries, and has also been found in wild boar and domestic pigs in eastern Europe. In September 2018, ASF was identified in wild boar in Belgium — currently the only occurrence known in western Europe. 

At the United Kingdom’s national farm animal disease research facility, the Pirbright Institute in Pirbright, Surrey, England, investigators have identified specific ASF virus proteins. Working together with scientists at Arizona State University, the team is scrutinizing which particular ASF virus proteins have induced the best immune response in pigs, and will then work to incorporate them into vaccines which could be used on farms. This is just a first step in the potential development of a safe vaccine against ASF. 

Here in Minnesota

The University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, along with the Minnesota Board of Animal Health have put together an Emergency Disease Management Committee for Swine. Comprised of swine producers, veterinarians, university researchers, agency representatives, allied industry and Minnesota Pork Board personnel, the committee is currently meeting weekly and working in subcommittees to flesh out the details of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health’s African swine fever response plan. The committee’s goal is to have the plan well-developed by late September.

The plan contains a detailed strategy for dealing with African Swine Fever in Minnesota.  A USDA-organized disaster simulation, the “ASF Functional Exercise” will be conducted simultaneously in 14 swine-production states in late September. This exercise will test the ability of the swine industry to handle an ASF outbreak.

In 2015, Minnesota had the unfortunate distinction of a Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak in the state’s poultry flocks. Millions of birds perished or were euthanized. Producers and health officials who worked through the HPAI nightmare have provided a wealth of education of what worked and what did not work during that disastrous outbreak.  

Pig farmers across the country understand the seriousness of the ASF threat. Collaboration between producers, health officials, packers and allied industry is the way that African swine fever will be conquered. 

Judging from the speed of response to learn more and to harden our borders against ASF in this past year, imagine how much better prepared the United States will be at the end of Year Two. 

Diane DeWitte is an Extension Swine Educator with the University of Minnesota Extension.  Based in Mankato, she can be reached at stouf002@umn.edu.