Federal government confident in African swine fever outbreak response

Animal Health Canada is the new body that would help form a cohesive national response

Canada’s guard against African swine fever (ASF) may be getting a new player around the table.

A potential outbreak of the virus that has decimated China’s hog industry — and criticisms from some circles that Canada’s federal response to potential disease outbreaks are fragmented and disorganized — has prompted the potential formation of what is being called Animal Health Canada.

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Megan Bergman, executive director of the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council, is supporting the Animal Health Canada working group.

“It’s an initiative that evolved out of a desire from both industry and government partners to be able to develop a more cohesive approach to — and a shared responsibility to — dealing with global health emergency events,” she said. “We’re all pulling in the same direction and we’re collaborating that we have a plan that works well for everybody.”

The idea of a national animal health body spanning all key players is, in part, inspired by existing models in other countries, such as New Zealand and Australia.

Bergman said that the approach to ASF so far has been proactive, with all involved looking to identify gaps and challenges prior to, rather than during, an outbreak event.

“You know, one of the biggest challenges is how do we have an inclusive approach to governance, because it tends to be a little bit disease specific in terms of what we have in place currently,” she said, adding responses have also tended to be regionally specific. “The structure has been set up and established for how to manage those issues from province to province or region to region.”

Aline Dimitri, executive director of the Animal Health Directorate for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, says even though Animal Health Canada isn’t a formal entity currently, it will learn from the lessons of ASF.

“Because how we’re managing it is better than what we’ve managed in the past,” Dimitri said, “and we’re going to also learn from this experience on, how do we work together? What do we need to make it work well?”

Dimitri says ASF offers a “test case” for what a potential Animal Health Canada body could look like.

The federal government’s framework is currently based on four pillars: preparedness and planning, enhanced biosecurity measures, ensuring business continuity in an outbreak event and co-ordinated risk communications.

Canada on guard

North America has so far dodged an encounter with African swine fever (ASF), but plans to prevent and, if needed, combat an outbreak on Canadian soil are still rolling full steam ahead.

Beyond working with the United States and Mexico, Canada has partnered with the provinces and industry groups to come up with an action plan for ASF.

“We are actually preparing all together. We are having regular meetings with all the players to make sure that we are able to co-ordinate our preparedness, that we discuss the key policy issues, that we are on the same page when it comes to communication,” Dimitri said.

Federal and provincial government representatives, as well as industry players, are currently holding meetings every two weeks on the issue, Dimitri noted.

Agri-Food Economic Systems lead researcher Al Mussell, who was on a panel discussing the issue during the Canadian Agri-Food policy conference in Ottawa, says the risks to Canada are well known.

He used the example of “the wild boar population that seems to be expanding and the risk that ASF could trickle in and get into the wild boar population.”

“And then secondly, of course, it’s the importation via air sea transport of contaminated product from East Asia, notably China, that would come in that’s contaminated with African swine fever,” he said.

In Manitoba, the Manitoba Pork Council has also identified wild pigs as a vector for disease, including ASF.

The province, Manitoba Wildlife Federation and Manitoba Pork Council are looking at control measures for wild pigs. In May 2019, the pork council said they had brought in a third part to help control the wild population with remote activated pen traps.

The disease featured heavily during meetings of the federal, territorial and provincial leaders in late 2019, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development Minister Blaine Pedersen said, including the financial impact should an infection be detected.

“The federal government, CFIA and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are doing a terrific job in terms of border security, making sure that we keep it out of North America,” he said.

At the same time, he added, the prospect of a local ASF infection, “cannot be like disaster financial assistance and flooding.”

“What happens when we have a flood in Manitoba, the provincial government picks up all the costs and then we go to Ottawa to try and get money out of there,” he said. “We’re working with the federal government to make sure that there is money there at the start and a federal contribution so that it doesn’t lay entirely on the shoulders of the province.”

Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba make up the lion’s share of Canada’s hog industry, he noted.

– With files from Alexis Stockford.

About the author

Reporter

D.C. Fraser is Glacier FarmMedia’s Ottawa-based reporter. Growing up mostly in Alberta, Fraser also lived in Saskatchewan for ten years where he covered politics, including a stint teaching at the University of Regina’s School of Journalism. He is an avid fan of the outdoors and a pretty good beer league hockey player. His passion for agriculture and agri-food policy comes naturally: Six consecutive generations of his family have worked in the industry.

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