The Manitoba pork sector says it won’t be caught flat footed if African swine fever (ASF) makes its way here.
The virulent disease is wreaking havoc in China and industry and government both concede it could be just a plane ride away from Manitoba.
“In my opinion, I think you can never be prepared enough,” Manitoba Pork Council swine health programs manager Jenelle Hamblin said. “I think we have a lot of work to do to plan for that worst-case scenario.”
North America’s pork industry is losing sleep over ASF, and with good reason. The disease comes with an up to 100 per cent mortality rate and has hit China and Vietnam both hard.
“We should be very concerned about this issue,” Dr. Egan Brockhoff, veterinary counsellor with the Canadian Pork Council, said. “If African swine fever comes to Canada, our pork sector is in the worst position it could ever be in. We (would be) no longer able to export. If we can’t export, if we can’t sell our product, farmers’ inventory value goes from millions of dollars to zero dollars in hours. If you’ve got zero inventory, you can’t go to a bank and get a loan, because your inventory has no value, and if you have no credit, then you can’t go buy feed. In weeks, we would be in a dire position.”
Canada is still largely in prevention mode.
In mid-march, the Government of Canada announced up to $31 million for 24 new dog detection teams over the next five years, specifically to combat the risk of ASF coming into the country through illegal meat imports.
At the same time, Brockhoff said, planning groups and organizations like the CFIA are getting pieces in place for a possible outbreak.
Initiatives like the Livestock Market Interruption Strategy — a joint industry and government project to prepare for a loss of markets, should a disease like ASF crop up — have turned up their urgency, and emergency preparations on traceability, containment and zoning are underway.
The province is not “at Stage 1,” of its plan against ASF, Hamblin said, “but we’re not where we need to be.”
Trade implications would level a heavy and immediate hit to the export-driven pork industry. Manitoba Agriculture estimates the province exported over $147-million worth of live swine alone to the U.S. in 2018, making it the fourth-largest export to our southern neighbour.
A case of African swine fever would close the Canada-U.S. border for six months, Brockhoff estimated.
Traceability and a quick halt to animal movements will both be critical in the case of an outbreak, he said.
In an ideal world, the Canadian pork sector would have 100 per cent reporting within three days of an incident and total cease on animal movements within 72 hours, he said.
“I think that producers would be compliant,” Hamblin said, although such a cease-movement order would be voluntary until issued by the CFIA.
“People kind of being on edge about (ASF), I think that would help to initiate that stop movement. We’ve been trying all along the way to enforce how important this stop movement is,” she said.
Brockhoff praised Canada’s PigTrace, an industry-led traceability program, calling it perhaps the greatest tool available for zoning.
The program is not perfect, Hamblin said. Reporting time still needs to improve, while the program needs to better engage small-scale producers.
“However, I think that we can get there,” she said.
The industry, along with veterinarians and the CFIA, is also wrestling with the logistics of a cull, for a disease easily transmissible by blood (making usual slaughter methods a possible vector) and deadstock and that has already led to the cull of over a million pigs in China alone.
Those challenges extend to a humane welfare cull should markets close and hogs have nowhere to go, Hamblin said.
“Even within our own province, the plans that we may use in southeastern Manitoba will be different from southwestern Manitoba to northwestern Manitoba and realizing that the decisions — we have to think through all of those different scenarios without knowing where this disease may hit,” Hamblin said.
Lessons from PED
Manitoba’s last brush with a pig disease outbreak may help the sector plan for ASF.
Porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) spiked unexpectedly in 2017. By December, there were 80 cases, quickly outpacing the 10 cases seen in the province to that point.
The outbreak sparked a biosecurity crackdown in the pork industry, right from the farm gate to the service providers and processors.
The Manitoba Pork Council also bolstered communication between farmers, industry and veterinarians. Manitoba Coordinated Disease Response, a network meant to quickly spread information on current outbreaks and biosecurity education, launched in 2017. As of October 2018, 47 per cent of the province’s pork producers were signed on.
“We learned a lot with PED in terms of biosecurity gaps that we had that we could fill, not only on farm, but in transport and other related sectors,” Hamblin said. “However, PED is not a foreign animal disease. We are not going to be dealing with the same sort of export closures like we would if we were to see something like African swine fever come to Canada, Manitoba — even the U.S., there would be implications.”
The province has promised a number of measures on top of those that emerged in the wake of PED.
Manitoba Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler stressed the importance of established zones in the case of an outbreak, something he says will be critical to containing the disease and that other experts, like Brockhoff, say will be key in proving that Canada is free of the disease to reopen trade borders.
Those zones would ensure that an issue in one zone would not close down trade across the country, while Eichler argued that such zones might trickle down to areas within the province, with heavy hog-producing areas such as “Hog Alley” around Steinbach classified differently than other parts of the province.
“We don’t want a thing to happen like with BSE,” Eichler said, pointing to the devastating shutdown of Canadian beef in 2003.
Canada currently has zoning agreements only with the United States and European Union.
Communication between agencies and organizations will also be key, Brockhoff said, but it’s also one aspect where the industry may not be on the same page.
The vast Canadian pork industry trends towards communication “silos,” he said, with organizations sharing information internally, but without spreading it to the industry at large.
“We’ve got planning groups in place today,” he said. “We’ve got zoning working groups in place. We’ve got destruction and disposal working groups in place today. We need all of those groups to continue to work together. CFIA has its groups. All of the provinces have their own groups, and then each sector has a group. I want them all talking. I want them all learning from each other, sharing experiences, ideas to create synergy so that we can move this forward in an orderly (fashion).”