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John Deen, University of Minnesota

African swine fever presents a real risk to US pigs, expert says

While countries across the globe work to eliminate African swine fever, John Deen says he hopes that U.S. pork producers continue to strive to block the highly contagious and deadly virus from ever infecting its pig herd.

Deen is a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota. His expertise includes swine health and welfare and epidemiology of swine diseases. As part of his epidemiological work, he has visited China, talking to pig farmers and veterinarians about the new scourge to the industry.

“I’m very concerned about this disease,” he said. “A massive number of pigs have been infected with this agent.”

The U.S. exports far more pork than it imports. In 2018, the U.S. exported more than 2.4 million pounds of pork, worth $6.392 billion, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation. Deen said the African fever could devastate the industry.

“Introduction of ASF into pigs in the U.S. would result in a loss of export markets and real difficulty in maintaining a market for our pork,” he said. “We’ve got to do everything to keep it out.”

African swine fever, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, is found in countries around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This is an infection restricted to pigs. It does not affect humans and there is no danger at all to human food supply,” Deen said.

Recent discovery of the disease in China and other southeast Asian countries and parts of Europe has been particularly worrisome, leading to the cancellation of the World Pork Expo that was slated to be held in Iowa.

That and other measures are not an overreaction, according to experts. Deen said the disease can travel in many ways, which makes the possibility of it making it to the U.S. more likely than other devastating livestock diseases, like foot and mouth disease. It can stick to shoes and equipment. It can live in feedstuffs and in the pork from infected pigs.

“It’s a long-lived virus,” he said. “It lasts a long time under a variety of scenarios.”

So farmers need to reexamine their biosecurity efforts, he said. Check into where materials are sourced. That includes not just feedstuffs but also the bags in which the feed comes. Create good sanitary conditions. Don’t bring pork products onto a pig farm.

All consumers have a role to play, Deen said. Support government efforts by avoiding smuggled products. Applaud efforts like the “Beagle Brigade” — an inspection service at international airports that involves dogs sniffing international travelers for smuggled items. The Beagle Brigade doesn’t just detect smuggling; it also provides an education point for the public to learn what kind of risk smuggling “even gifts of sausage” can have to the industry, Deen explained.

“People like ethnic foods from their own countries, yet that can be a risk,” he said.

The USDA considers the illegal entry of swine products and byproducts to be the most likely pathway for African swine fever to come to the U.S., with the likeliest entry points being air passenger baggage and foreign mail.

“Part of the reason we identify that as a risk is that’s the way we think it entered countries such as China and Vietnam,” Deen said.

To be transmitted to a pig, it has to get into the mouth of a pig. That could happen through traces of the virus getting through a person’s lunch at a pig farm, through “swill feeding” that hasn’t been properly prepared or through a backyard pig eating food scraps from a person’s table.

Deen said the pork industry also needs to be prepared to “respond quickly to an outbreak or the recognition of African swine fever in our country so we can eliminate it quickly.” And it’s not just the first outbreak that matters; it’s subsequent infections as well. The efforts of the National Pork Board, government agencies and Extension services are vital in that regard, he said.

Deen said it’s also vital for people to understand that while African swine fever can be devastating to the pork industry, it will not infect people.

“It’s not like an influenza that has potential to infect humans,” he said. “This is very much a pig disease.”

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