Food and agriculture

Talks to separate Hong Kong and mainland Chinese pigs in slaughterhouses amid African swine fever fears

  • The disease is already in neighbouring Guangdong province
  • Government assures public the virus cannot pass to humans
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 11:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 3:11pm

Hong Kong food safety officials on Thursday said they had been in talks with the pork industry over segregating local and mainland Chinese pigs during slaughter, because of fears of an outbreak of African swine fever which had already spread to neighbouring Guangdong province.

But the Centre for Food Safety said the separate ownership and operation of the city’s two main abattoirs made such a move difficult. Mainland and local pigs are processed at both the Sheung Shui slaughterhouse, which is owned by the government, and a privately run one in Tsuen Wan.

“The operation, source of pigs and sales are different, making it difficult to achieve a consensus,” a source from the centre said, adding, however, that segregation would help protect local pigs from infection.

The centre revealed the talks after the national Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs reported 11 pigs had contracted the disease and died at a slaughterhouse in the Xiangzhou district of Zhuhai, Guangdong, just 60km from Hong Kong on the opposite bank of the Pearl River Delta.

The source said the centre and the city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department had stepped up measures to prevent local pigs from being infected, including giving local farmers information about the disease and boosting sterilisation of trucks used in the industry.

A total of 154 mainland pig farms supply the animals to Hong Kong and Macau. But supplies from four of them were suspended because they were near areas affected by the virus.

There are 43 pig farms in Hong Kong, with a total of about 50,000 pigs. About 3,500 to 4,000 live pigs are supplied from the mainland to Hong Kong daily. They and about 250 pigs from local farms are slaughtered every day.

The centre said the supply and auction price of live pigs imported from the mainland in the past few months had been stable despite the swine fever – a severe viral disease for which there are no vaccines or treatments.

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Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee convened an interdepartmental meeting on Thursday to discuss the latest situation and possible contingency measures.

She urged the public not to worry about the disease, which humans cannot catch.

“[African swine fever] is a contagious disease in pigs that will not be transmitted to humans, posing no food safety risk. Well-cooked pork and pork products are safe for consumption,” she said.

China reported its first outbreak in August in the northeastern province of Liaoning. Cases were later reported in 23 provincial-level regions. At least 631,000 pigs have been culled in the battle against the disease.

The owner of a local pig farm, speaking anonymously, said he worried there would be a high chance of the disease spreading from the mainland to Hong Kong, given the high number of pigs sent to the city every day.

“Hong Kong and mainland pigs are handled together in the same facilities, and there are trucks and people going in and out of those places,” the owner said. “If there is African swine fever in the slaughterhouses, people might not notice. But a truck might carry the virus and spread it when going to local farms.”

He said that about two months previously, his farm had stepped up hygiene measures to prevent the fever, such as thoroughly cleaning the facility once a week, as opposed to the usual once a month. It also cut inward deliveries from three times a week to once a week, to decrease traffic in and out.

But Hui Wai-kin of the Hong Kong Pork Traders General Association said he was not worried the virus would spread to Hong Kong, as mainland authorities had enhanced hygiene inspection measures for pigs crossing the border. For example, he said, pigs would need to be observed at an inspection point for eight hours to ensure good health before they could enter the city.

He added that Hong Kong authorities also conducted inspections before and after slaughtering pigs.

Hong Kong health officials earlier this month did a culling drill, for in the event of the fever spreading to the city. A total of 30 toy pigs were used in the drill. Photos of officers in full protective gear playing with the pink toy pigs attracted city residents’ attention on social media.