Dr. Spronk and Dee

Dr. Gordon Spronk (left) and Dr. Scott Dee with the Pipestone Veterinary clinic discuss African Swine Fever at the 2019 Pork Congress.

MINNEAPOLIS – African swine fever (ASF) was a major talking point at the 2019 Minn. Pork Congress. The disease has quickly spread across many Chinese provinces. While last year’s Pork Congress included discussions about response should ASF reach the United States, this year it shifted to a determined focus to keep it out.

“There are two things we need to be aware of when it comes to African swine fever,” said Dr. Gordon Spronk, veterinarian and Chairman of the Board of the Pipestone Veterinary Clinic. “One is the clear economic opportunity. Approximately 75 percent of the world's pigs now have or are threatened by ASF. If we can remain free of the disease, the economic opportunity is nearly off the charts.”

The second issue Spronk addressed was the animal welfare concern should ASF reach U.S. borders.

A vaccine does not exist for ASF and minimizing animal suffering would be a challenge. While the United States is much better equipped to manage an outbreak with appropriate animal care, Spronk depicted the dire situation in China by showing a video of live, ASF-positive hogs being buried alive. Chinese producers use this method because of a lack of resource and due to the virulent nature of ASF, which is highly transmittable through blood.

“Let's keep it out, that is the vision,” said Spronk. “We are the best pork-producing nation in the world. We have the best resources and the best technology. I believe we can cast a vision, make good decisions and keep it out.”

ASF primarily spreads in two ways. One is a slow, natural progression through a geographic area, often being transmitted by wild hogs or poor biosecurity measures. The other is through the transport of meat and meat products across borders.

“It can jump geographic regions,” Spronk said. “It jumps when people carry contaminated meat across international borders.” While the virus is no threat to human health, people move it in either fresh or frozen pork.

People cannot be infected by ASF. Eating contaminated meat will not make a person sick, but the virus is very hardy and prolific. It will survive in the meat of infected animals long after the animal has died.

One of the reasons ASF spread so rapidly in China was the transport and sale of contaminated meat in areas that were not yet affected.

This is one way the disease could make it into the United States.

As people fly from China to the United States carrying pork, sausage or other foods, it’s very possible that meat is contaminated with ASF.

Many customs and border patrol agents at U.S. airports receiving international flights, work with dogs to strengthen detection of passengers illegally carrying meat.

“Little tip for you, if a beagle sits by your suitcase, you might be delayed,” said Spronk.

“Last Thursday, I was in Dallas where I didn't see a dog working with the inspection teams,” he said. We need more dogs. It's one of our number one protection methods for North America. We want a member of the “Beagle Brigade” to meet every targeted load on a plane from an ASF positive country. It's a very simple ask.”

ASF could also jump to North America through contaminated feed. Each year, the U.S. imports approximately 2 million metric tons of agriculture products.

In Asia, it is a very common cultural practice to dry harvested grain on the highway. They literally spread the grain on the roads in the sun to dry. At the same time, cars and trucks drive past and over that grain, including trucks hauling infected pigs.

Before the Minnesota Pork Congress began, the National Pork Board, the Minn. Pork Producers Council, and the Swine Health Committee agreed on a set of resolutions to keep ASF out.

One of those resolutions is to restrict soy-based imports from ASF positive countries.

Research into other common swine diseases – PRRS, Seneca vesicular disease and PEDv – shows that viruses survive better and longer in soy-based products compared to other feed stuffs. In addition, the U.S. is flush with soybeans. There is little reason to continue to import from high-risk areas.

Another resolution passed by the groups is to work more collaboratively with Canada and Mexico to protect all of North America. It’s in the best interest of the United States for the North American trading partners to tighten their inspection of imports and international flights.

“As producers, you need to be active and ask the appropriate border authorities to act,” said Spronk. “If you talk to border patrol staff, they will tell you they need 70 more beagles. Let's figure out how to get them 70 more beagles. They also want 600-1,000 employees with specific training in agricultural inspection.”

People on international flights who have been on a farm are directed to specific agricultural agents. They need more of these agents with a full understanding of agriculture and the risks of foreign animal disease.

Producers need to communicate with their legislators, advocating for better border protection against ASF, responsible imports of agricultural products and feed additives, and collaboration across North America, he said.

“Here is the thing that we all need to understand about this virus: we all share the risk,” said Spronk. “We will all share the benefits of keeping this animal disease out of the United States.”