A deadly pig virus has been found in northwestern Europe for the first time in three decades, putting pork production in the world’s top exporter at further risk at a time when China is also battling the disease.
Belgian authorities said Thursday that two cases had been confirmed of wild boar carrying African swine fever near the southern village of Etalle, near the French border. While the virus so far hasn’t reached Belgian pig farms, it’s the first registered case in the northwestern part of the European Union since 1986, according to Rabobank International.
The virus doesn’t affect humans, but has no cure and can be 100 percent lethal to pigs, posing a serious threat to pork output and exports. It emerged in the European Union in 2014, but was contained to eastern parts in countries including the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. French authorities on Thursday said the Belgian cases represent an unprecedented spread of the disease.
“If there is a serious outbreak in an area which is densely populated with pig farms, then it could bear very significant consequences,” said Justin Sherrard, an animal-protein strategist at Rabobank in Utrecht. Still, there are "biosecurity measures which appear to have been working pretty well across large parts of Europe,” he said.
The Belgian cases were registered about 60 kilometers from Germany, the bloc’s No. 1 pork producer that for now has avoided the disease. Germany’s Agriculture Ministry pointed to the strict compliance with biosecurity measures at pig farms and is completing draft legislation aimed at combating an outbreak in wild boars, it said.
"I take the new situation very seriously," German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said in a statement Thursday. "African swine fever has long been a threat to Germany and our preparations for the crisis are underway."
Outbreaks in the bloc have spread across the region at a rate of about 200 kilometers a year, causing an estimated several billion euros in annual losses. Culling infected animals and imposing strict containment measures are the only tools available to limit further spread. Most recently Romania was forced to cull thousands of pigs.
China, the world’s top pork producer and consumer, has been racing to contain the deadly virus in eastern provinces. The ease of transmission and the wide geographic distribution of the disease could significantly impact the country’s animal population and pork output, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.