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Plugging the holes on African swine fever

Canadian officials hope to hold the line on African swine fever

Officials are hoping an ounce of prevention will mean no cure is needed when it comes to African swine fever (ASF).

Prevention has so far been a building block of Canada’s plans against the deadly swine disease.

The highly contagious disease can be carried in blood, tissues, manure and stay viable in deadstock and fresh and processed pork for months, according to the CFIA. And, while the virus doesn’t come with human health concerns, the worst strains of it can kill up to 100 per cent of the infected pigs, of all ages.

Why it matters: Canada is looking to address the risks that might bring African swine fever into Canada in the hopes we can head it off before it arrives.

Contaminated meat has been a major concern for anti-ASF efforts so far.

The federal government has stepped up traveller information, in the hopes of stemming any meat brought into the country improperly. Failing to declare a food or animal item could lead to a $1,300 fine, under current customs rules, while the CFIA is blocking anyone who has been to a country with ASF from visiting a Canadian pig farm within two weeks of arriving back in Canada.

In mid-March, the Government of Canada announced up to $31 million for more dog detection teams, specifically to combat the risk of ASF coming into the country through illegal meat imports. The funding would support an extra 24 teams over the next five years, the government said in a release.

Both the government and experts like Dr. Egan Brockhoff, veterinary counsellor with the Canadian Pork Council, have singled sniffer dogs out as one of the greatest tools to prevent the disease from spreading to Canada.

Of perhaps more concern to farmers, the Government of Canada has tightened its grip around imported feed. Imported feed such as soybean meal from China has been identified as a possible entry point for ASF.

On March 29, the Canadian government announced secondary control zones for those products landing in Canada. Under the new zones, unprocessed grains and oilseeds must be quarantined, heat treated or held in the secondary zone for 20 days at a temperature of 20 C, all without coming into contact with any other grains that have not passed the new requirements. Meals, meanwhile, must be processed heat treated to 70 C for half an hour (or 85 C for five minutes) before ever arriving in Canada.

Brockhoff calls the rules a, “massive win for the Canadian pork sector.”

He praised the Canadian government’s quick response to that risk.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Ralph Eichler, however, says he wants tighter rules.

“We want to ensure that there’s no disease in that meal. We want to ensure that any other products that come in are disease free as well,” he said. “We have no idea when or if we’ll ever get it, but certainly we want to make sure that we do everything that we can to keep it out, so if it means extending those guidelines before that feed is actually able to be used to be processed, we want to ensure that everything is tested before we allow it to get to a farm.”

The province estimates that only about 40 producers in Manitoba rely on Chinese-imported soybean meal.

Feed additives are another topic of conversation when it comes to risk mitigation.

There has been work done on substances like organic acids added to feed to avoid viral contamination.

“None of them are perfect, but some of them reduce the risk,” Brockhoff said. “Those types of products need to be considered when we use high-risk ingredients like organic soybean meal imported from India.”

The wild side

Anxiety over ASF may also mean more focus on Canada’s wild pigs.

Wild pigs are a vector for ASF, Brockhoff said, and countries in Europe are still struggling with the virus in their wild pig populations, one of the challenges that countries like Poland have faced in trying to eliminate the disease after outbreaks in Europe in 2014.

In Canada, wild pigs are a self-made problem. Populations emerged after farm diversification efforts in the ’80s and ’90s brought in wild boar, which escaped or were released and, according to Brockhoff, cross easily with domestic species.

The result was a “highly successful” invasive species, he said, pointing to the high fertility, multiple piglets, adaptable diet, lack of predators and early sexual maturity. Control has been an issue since, he said, since the animals are hard to track, even with thermal imaging and hunting can scatter the group, and create multiple groups where once there was one.

At the same time, Brockhoff said, it is likely that Canada’s wild pig population will eventually touch the northern U.S. population, something that could increase the Canadian wild pig exposure to disease.

“Our wild pigs are high health,” he said. “In the United States, they have pseudo-rabies virus in their wild pig population, and that’s a foreign animal disease that we don’t want. Our wild pigs, though, are very reflective of our current pig health status… but if we were to introduce virus to them, they become a reservoir that’s hard to manage.”

There is currently no national strategy to deal with wild pigs, although all provinces have some form of control program. One of the most popular strategies involves placing a tracker on a boar, and following it back to hunt the herd.

Wild pigs are not at the top of their ASF concern, Brockhoff said, although he, personally, advocates a surveillance program to better identify the animals.

Canada will host an international forum on ASF April 30-May 1 in Ottawa this year.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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