It isn’t only Covid-19 that is sending jitters throughout the international community. The global pork industry today is feeling the strain of a health scare in the form of the African swine fever (ASF). In Indonesia, officials confirmed the first outbreak of the ASF in December, spurring fears that it could reach Australia and lead to stricter biosecurity measures. At least 30,000 pigs have died in the province of North Sumatra where the pig population is 1.2 million.

In the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture (DA) confirmed cases of the fever in Kalinga and Benguet this month, saying laboratory examinations from five areas in the Cordillera – Tanudan, Bulanao, and Tabuk towns in Kalinga, and Beckel (La Trinidad) and Camp 1 (Tuba) in Benguet – have tested positive. Davao Occidental, meanwhile, is under a state of calamity, with up to 10,000 pigs affected by ASF in some of its municipalities.

Don Marcelino, one of the towns in Davao Occidental, has already implemented a total ban on the transport and sale of hogs, all pork products, and by-products since January 31, after approximately 1,000 pigs died due to the disease. “Eight barangays within Don Marcelino ang naka-cordoned off para di kakalat ang disease (were cordoned off so that the disease will not spread),” Agriculture Secretary William Dar said in a media briefing.

Local pork industry takes a hit

The Philippines is the world’s 10th-largest pork consumer. It is also the world’s 7th-biggest pork importer. It comes as no surprise then that the local swine industry is one of the country’s most lucrative trades, worth Php 200 billion or US $5 billion and contributing 18.28% to the country’s agricultural output in 2015 – second only to rice.

This is why disease outbreaks cause serious economic and production losses. (Environmentalist and Best Alternatives Campaign founder Gregg Yan pegs the losses at Php 1 billion or US $20 million per month.) Once an animal contracts ASF, it has little chance of surviving coupled with a huge chance of spreading the virus to other animals. Affected animals are thus usually destroyed to prevent undue suffering and to contain the spread of disease.

Not a public health threat

The African swine fever is a viral disease which affects domestic and wild pigs. It can be spread through live or dead hogs, plus anything which has come in contact with tainted meat: knives, wastewater, and even an undisinfected worker’s hands. In fact, Marivic F. Hubac, Head Executive Assistant and ASF spokesperson of the Province of Davao Occidental, says that “our close contact with ASF-infected pigs are said to be the wide cause of its widespread.” Symptoms of the highly-contagious disease include high fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. There is no approved vaccine to this illness that kills about 80 percent of the pigs it infects.

Countries with confirmed cases are subject to international trade restrictions aimed at reducing the risk of introduction of the disease through trade. Because ASF only impacts pigs and not humans, it is therefore not a public health threat, according to the US Department of Agriculture. It cannot be transmitted to humans through contact with pigs or pork.

Mitigation measures

The Philippine Department of Agriculture (DA) and Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) are attempting to stamp out the virus through improved biosecurity, quarantine, area-wide bans, and preventive culling.

In Davao Occidental – where a majority of the hog raisers are backyard and outdoor farms – the Governor has banned swill feeding, or the practice of feeding leftover food to pigs. There is also an ongoing ASF awareness campaign as well as a total lockdown on the movement of pigs and the distribution and/or sale of pork and processed pork products within the province. Hubac shares that owners whose pigs were affected by the DA’s protocol guideline (or those within a kilometer radius from the infected area) were advised to surrender their hogs to the barangay center for culling and proper disposal.

The Agriculture Department is paying Php 5,000 per head of culled pig, regardless of age, and is providing Php 30,000 worth of loans to the affected hog raisers.

Supply and demand

Isa Q. Tan, editor of Asian Pork Magazine, says the incidence of ASF has made the dynamics of supply and demand in the local pork industry pretty strange. While infected areas are limiting the movement of pigs, non-infected areas are enacting a pork and pork products ban as a preventive measure. This has resulted in an undersupply in the latter and an oversupply in the former.

Tan says the Metro Manila, Central Luzon, and Calabarzon areas, which together make up the biggest market for pork, have already been very much affected by ASF. “The losses have been staggering. While right now there seems to be enough supply of pork, from what I’ve been hearing this will not be the case a few months from now. Many farms have either lost their animals due to the disease or have been depopulating because they fear they would get hit by it and are cutting their losses short.”

Containment through biosecurity

The pressing concern now is the management, control, and containment of the virus. Biosecurity, or the methods that are used to stop a disease or infection from spreading from one person, animal, or place to others, is the main tool against ASF. It is not, however, universally implemented in the Philippines, even among commercial producers.

“There are rumors that ASF has spread to other parts of Mindanao. The biggest fear would be how ASF might affect GenSan, the biggest pork-producing region in Mindanao, and whose production is predominantly ‘exported’ to other provinces, particularly Cebu. Key production areas like Northern Mindanao and Davao City could also be affected,” Tan adds.

The Bureau of Animal Industry urges hog raisers to immediately report disease incidents to their respective Municipal, City or Provincial Veterinary Office or call the DA Crisis Management Task Force at 09951329339 (Globe) at 09208543119 (Smart).