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Food and agriculture

Vigilance essential as African swine fever fears rise before Year of the Pig

  • The spread across the mainland of the disease at so important a time has caused concern in Hong Kong about supplies and prices of pork, and transparency is needed to ensure safe availability
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 9:53pm

A Lunar New Year feast without fresh pork is unthinkable and with the pig about to be celebrated, the presence of the dish at festivities will have particular cultural significance. The spread across the mainland of African swine fever at so important a time has caused concern about supplies and prices. There is no known cure for the viral infection and although people are not affected, culling animals wherever outbreaks occur is the only way to control the disease. Vigilance, transparency and cooperation are essential to ensure safe availability.

Hong Kong relies on the mainland for all but a few hundred of its daily consumption of about 4,000 pigs. A number of the cross-border farms certified to supply the local market have already stopped sending animals since the first outbreak on August 3. The virus has now been found in 22 provinces and at least 600,000 pigs have died, more than half having been culled. But given the mainland’s past poor record in revealing diseases and food contamination, there is obvious concern about transparency and smuggling.

Hong Kong to strengthen swine fever defences after pressure from farmers

Mainland authorities would seem to have learned past lessons; more than 100 outbreaks have been announced, the worst being revealed on January 2 at a farm with 73,000 pigs in Heilongjiang where 4,686 were found to be infected and 3,766 had died. Customs officials said the virus had also been identified in protein powders used for animal feed and an alert was issued to Hong Kong and Macau to tighten checks. But Taiwan’s claim that a dead pig had been found washed up on an island 30 minutes by boat from the mainland has raised concerns about the effectiveness of warning systems.

Controlling the spread of the disease is a priority, but the experience of Europe is not a good sign; despite tight enforcement of regulations and response mechanisms, outbreaks have persisted since the first case was identified in Georgia in 2007 and the latest was in Belgium in September with ongoing flare-ups in Ukraine and Romania. Endemic in sub-Saharan and western Africa, human activity and wild boar are believed to be behind its spread. But research in Russia has found that farming practices also contribute, a particular problem being poor regulation of backyard and small-scale pork production.

Chinese eat more than half of the world’s pork and the mainland industry is valued at an estimated US$128 billion. Should swine fever decimate the nation’s pig population, imports would greatly impact global pork and beef supply chains. Transparency and education are starting points to fighting the disease, but authorities have to also be mindful that opening the nation to greater trade through belt and road initiatives increases risks. More immediately, though, a shortage of pork would be perceived as a bad sign for the Year of the Pig.