More than 1m pigs have been culled across China since last August in an attempt to stop African swine fever from spreading further through the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork.

The outbreak is devastating for a domestic industry worth some $128bn, and impacts a staple of China’s diet. Before the recent culls, the country was home to 400m pigs and pork is the most popular meat: 30.6kg was consumed per person in 2018, almost three times the amount of poultry eaten.

The disease has now jumped to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Cambodia and North Korea, forcing countries to implement disinfection programmes and more stringent checks at borders in a bid to halt it. Experts at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) worry it could spread still further to Myanmar, the Philippines and Laos, making this one of the worst animal disease outbreaks on record.

Fumbled response

More than 120 outbreaks of African swine fever have been reported in China, affecting every province, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

Last September, the FAO held an emergency meeting of regulators and industry participants from nine Asian countries in Bangkok to develop a response and encourage greater cross-border and regional collaboration.

Government fumbling may have contributed to the disease spreading so far, so fast. A poorly functioning compensation scheme is part of the problem. Beijing ordered herds to be culled and offered payments of Rmb1,200 ($174) a head for those who lost animals. But local governments balked at the high cost, leading many farmers to sell their animals quickly rather than report an outbreak.

Map of China showing the spread of cases of African Swine Fever in every province.

Spread hard to stop

Swine fever is hard to track and harder still to eradicate. It can spread through contact with infected live or dead pigs, and via contaminated pork products. Several decades of research have yet to deliver an effective vaccine.

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Signs of the virus in animals include high fever, weakness, diarrhoea, vomiting, blotches on the skin and difficulty breathing. Pigs usually die within 10 days of infection.

Humans are not susceptible, but its spread impacts food supply and livelihoods that depend on the pork industry.

About 18,000 pigs have been infected since last August, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which in April estimated that more than 1m pigs had been culled.

Impact on pork prices

The culls have only provided a marginal boost to pork prices in China. Worried they will not be compensated enough if they report outbreaks to government, many farmers kill herds at the first sign of an outbreak and sell the meat as soon as they can. The flood of meat has depressed prices across the country.

But there will inevitably be a shortage later this year that will sharply drive up the cost of Chinese pork, analysts say. Many farmers are positioning themselves to take advantage of the opportunity by buying up piglets to raise and sell. Agriculture ministry data shows that the average price of piglets in China jumped 77 per cent from a four-year low in January.

Damage to a world leading industry

China is the biggest market for pork in the world. It produces 47 per cent of the world’s pigs, or more than 54m tonnes in 2018.

Most stay within China’s borders: the country consumed about 55m tonnes of pork last year, accounting for almost half the global total.

The epidemic continues to spread abroad

On May 10, Hong Kong confirmed its first case at one of the city’s slaughterhouses and ordered a cull of 6,000 pigs and a disinfection operation. The government said the animal had been imported from neighbouring Guangdong province in mainland China.

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Butchers and supermarkets in the city ran out of fresh pork. A second case was discovered on June 1 at the same slaughterhouse, prompting another cull of 4,100 pigs.

Vietnam first detected the virus in February and has since destroyed 2m pigs as the disease has spread to more than 45 provinces and cities.

North Korea reported a case near its border with China to the World Organisation for Animal Health at the end of May. The country said 77 pigs had been infected with the disease and a further 22 had been killed and disposed of.

The report prompted South Korea to increase its disinfection efforts in a bid to stave off the disease in its herds. Swine fever has also spread to Mongolia and Cambodia, and other countries in Asia fear they may be next.

Via Financial Times