Virus protection

Kerry Knudsen

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) this month intercepted a million pounds of pork from China being smuggled into the U.S. through Elizabeth, N.J. Chinese export protocols don’t seem to be quite so stringent as others may wish.

This is especially notable this time because not only is the smuggling of pork illegal, but China last year got hit with African Swine Fever (ASF), and North America is in a panic. If ASF makes it to our shores, it will rock the economy to its foundations.

The United States Department of Agriculture says ASF is uncontrollable and there is no vaccine. It is not known to affect humans. However, it has proven to be explosively contagious, and it has a high mortality rate off the top, then it causes affected pigs to abort and to stop eating. To a production facility, not eating affects average daily weight gain and the number of days to market, which are both critical production numbers. Spontaneous abortions, of course, end the income stream where it starts. U.S. officials say if ASF gets there, U.S. losses in the first year could reach $10 billion.

In the first part of March, China was hosting a delegation of Iowa farmers and trying to explain how they were managing the disease. However, it would be hard to imagine any group that would be more likely to be expert in hog husbandry than Iowa farmers. Predictably, questions got asked, and answers got reported. For example, the first reported case of ASF in China was last August (2018), and since then the Chinese government reports the disease is in 25 provinces and 105 farms. Unlike the USDA, the Chinese say the disease is easily controlled. Successful Farming editor Betty Freese quotes a Chinese official: “ASF is being controlled effectively. There are fewer and fewer ASF cases happening. That shows that all the measures against the ASF here in China are very effective.”

Current reports say ASF has now expanded to Vietnam and will soon be in Thailand, South Korea and Japan.

China has been asked to stop adding swine blood-plasma products to feed, as the virus can be transmitted that way, and recent tests show 95 percent of the plasma products are positive for ASF. China has protested, saying the slaughterhouses need a market for blood, and throwing it out would cause waste and pollution.

Where this gets interesting is that China recently bought up some of the “factory farms” in North Carolina — an area known for its high concentrations of hog farming. Dead animals, whether aborted fetuses or dead adults, have historically been used as protein for the existing herds in a process known in the industry as feed-back.

But the question becomes, what happens if China, long known for its willingness to push into the North American market things we don’t want … what if China decides to send feed to its U.S. operations with ASF virus? In that case, a raccoon might stop off at one hog lagoon in Duplin County, N.C., pick up the virus and skip over to another lagoon and deposit it. A batch of feeder pigs with a newly minted case of ASF might be mixed in with a herd going to a finishing barn in Iowa, etc.

I doubt many readers today wanted a lesson in hog production, but it raises the spectre of very serious economic problems in China. Pork is a staple in the Chinese diet. Or it was. According to China, “… we believe that pork is a red meat and not so good for your health. Our consumers are getting a better and healthier diet, so they may not have so much demand for pork….” I suppose I believe them. After all, what country knows better what its consumers want, as well as what they better want?

In my view, the Chinese have learned to say pollution, healthy and biosecurity, so they are ahead in the PR game. However, they also say they lost a million pigs between August and the first of the year, and reported it as 0.9 percent of the herd. You can believe that or adjust it as you like. Feedstuffs magazine, by February, was reporting the Chinese swine herd down 16.6 percent. The U.S. government does not believe China has controlled ASF, and it’s hard to imagine that finding a million pounds of smuggled pork in this political environment will help.

Pork is such an inherent part of both human consumption in Asia and in its international commerce, I think it cannot help but affect the flow of labour and materials that currently pressure our wood industry at home. And trade, overall, is on everybody’s radar. Stay tuned, and let’s see what happens.