The presence of African Swine Fever in Europe and Asia has been felt since 2018, but the threat continued in 2019, and will most likely continue in the year to come.

Outbreaks of African Swine Fever (ASF) in Europe and Asia became a major story line that began in 2018, stretched into 2019 and promises to continue into the new year and beyond.

Startling spread

Pork industry analysts began tracking the disease as it spread westward from Eastern Europe. Reports of ASF outbreaks began trickling in beginning in January. An assessment published in June by the Dept. for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the United Kingdom noted reports of the disease in domestic pigs and wild boar populations in the Czech Republic, Kaliningrad, Romania, Hungary and Poland. Although Defra concluded that the risk of ASF introduction to the UK is still considered to be low, the risk showed no signs of abating.

In September 2018, officials in Belgium confirmed the presence of ASF in two wild boar in a town roughly 10 km from France. Curt Hudnutt, executive vice president of Rural Banking, North America, at Rabobank, said that finding coupled with the presence of wild boar throughout the region has stoked fears the disease could spread into The Netherlands, then Germany and throughout the continent.

“An outbreak in Europe could be traumatic to global pork production,” Hudnutt said during a panel discussion.

By July of 2019, Belgium declared the country had succeeded in preventing spread of the disease to domestic swine herds and captive wild boar.

ASF is harmless to humans, but deadly to swine. The virus causes a hemorrhagic disease in pigs, warthogs, European wild boar and American feral pigs. It is transmissible via body fluid of infected animals, contaminated feed, premises, vehicles, equipment and clothing.

Biting flies and ticks also can transmit the disease by taking blood meals from an infected animal and passing on the virus to other susceptible animals. Pigs can become infected through direct contact with infected pigs. Currently, there is no vaccine available to treat or prevent the disease.

China’s first outbreak of ASF occurred in Shenyang, the largest city in Liaoning Province. In response to the outbreak, the Chinese government implemented control measures that included movement control inside the country; surveillance outside containment and/or protection zones; screening; quarantine; official destruction of animal products; official disposal of carcasses, byproducts and waste; stamping out; control of wildlife reservoirs; zoning and disinfection.

Since China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) confirmed that first outbreak in August of 2018, 163 outbreaks of ASF were detected in 32 provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and special administrative regions, according to a situation update from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Analysts in the trade estimate that China’s pig herd has dropped to just under 200 million pigs from more than 430 million animals in August of 2018, when the first case of ASF in the country was reported. FAO expected herd losses to level off in 2020. Analysts with Rabobank predicted a quarter of the global pig population would succumb to ASF as the disease continued to spread outside of China to Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Myanmar, Philippines, Timor-Leste, South Korea and North Korea.

“The outbreak is particularly affecting vulnerable small-scale farmers who may lack the expertise or funds to protect their animals from the disease,” the FAO reported.

By August of 2019, Vietnam had culled approximately 3 million pigs in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. However, this also raised concerns that ASF could contribute to an increase in food insecurity in already-challenged communities, FAO noted.

ASF defense

In response to the outbreak, animal health officials and stakeholders in the pork industry rallied to mount defenses against ASF while animal health and welfare officials worked to stamp out the disease abroad.

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) canceled the World Pork Expo 2019 “out of an abundance of caution” citing the spread of ASF in China and other parts of Asia. The World Pork Expo, held annually in Des Moines, Iowa, draws more than 20,000 global visitors over a three-day period.

“While an evaluation by veterinarians and other third-party experts concluded negligible risk associated with holding the event, we have decided to exercise extreme caution,” said David Herring, NPPC president and a pork producer from Lillington, North Carolina. “The health of the US swine herd is paramount; the livelihoods of our producers depend on it. Prevention is our only defense against ASF and NPPC will continue to do all it can to prevent its spread to the United States.”

Chief veterinary officers representing the United States, Canada and Mexico collaborated on a framework for a new North American-specific strategy to prevent an ASF outbreak.

Jaspinder Komal, Chief Veterinary Officer for Canada, said, “The strategy will help guide ASF-related coordination and cooperation between Canada, Mexico and the United States in our communications, prevention, preparedness and response activities.”

Areas of collaboration would include comprehensive disease surveillance; surge capacity so that Canada, Mexico and the US would work together to harmonize diagnostic tests for exotic animal diseases, for example; contingency plans; and activities such as control programs, surveillance, hunter education and farm biosecurity aimed at mitigating risks associated with wild pigs.

Additionally, the US and Canada agreed to modify export certificates to ensure safe trade in the event an ASF outbreak occur in either country. Under the terms of the agreement, geographic boundaries will be defined to contain the outbreak, while areas outside of the control zones will be designated as disease-free zones.

Canada made a similar arrangement with the European Union. The ASF zoning agreement reached by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Dept. of Health and Safety of the European Commission (DG SANTE) serves an additional layer of international collaboration in ASF mitigation while maintaining safe trade. In the event of an ASF outbreak, geographic boundaries established in the zoning agreement are defined to contain the outbreak. The boundaries are control zones established in alignment with World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) principles. The areas outside of these control zones are disease-free zones.

Looming threat

The global impacts of ASF continued to materialize in 2019 as ASF-affected countries, especially China, worked to fill the void left by tightened supplies of pork. China is the world’s largest consumer of pork and accounts for approximately half of global pork production.

Demand for pork in China pushed prices to record highs in some regions, while trade barriers constricted any windfalls for the US and Canada, Rabobank said in its “Pork Quarterly Q4 2019” report. Retail prices in China rose 78 percent month-over-month in September, fall holiday demand for pork depleted inventories.

The European Union remained a key supplier of pork to the global market, with exports of pork to China and other Asian countries supporting a 31 percent year-over-year increase in prices and near-record margins, Rabobank said.

Rabobank predicts China’s population will consume less fresh warm pork and more chilled, frozen and processed meat. Poultry consumption will account for roughly 30 percent of the Chinese market by 2025. China won’t be able to import enough pork to make up for the shortfall in domestic production in the coming years, and herd rebuilding has been slow.

Rabobank estimated a five-year time period is needed for China to rebuild its swineherd and stabilize its pork market. Analysts anticipate China will focus on restocking herds on a small scale while importing large numbers of hogs before increasing hog production into 2025. However, China’s swineherd is unlikely to return to peak levels seen in 2018.

Chenjun Pan, animal protein senior analyst at Rabobank said, “The recovery will likely start taking shape next year but we’re then looking at years of production increases to get the market back on track given the herd has roughly halved in less than 18 months.

“The key point is that even when the market does rebalance, it’s going to be a different meat environment in China. Pork will remain the country’s protein of choice, but it will command a much smaller share of consumption as younger consumers lead the charge into poultry. For China, and the global market, this will be the new normal.”