Gordon Spronk

Gordon Spronk

Livestock producers across the U.S. have their eyes fixed on China’s swineherd as African swine fever (ASF) spreads.

The disease that was identified over a century ago didn’t insight panic in its namesake’s continent, but as African swine fever moved into the world’s largest swine herd in 2018, the agricultural outlook got a bit more unsteady, Dr. Gordon Sponk said.

Spronk, a veterinarian and National Pork Board member who has been to China during this crisis, will be joined by several of his colleagues at Minnesota Farmfest Aug. 7. A panel of Spronk, Dave Preisler, Dr. Beth Thompson, Dr. Jerry Torrison and Mark Schultz will discuss ASF and other pandemic livestock diseases at 1:15 p.m. in the Farmfest Center building.

The talk aims to give producers who aren’t focused on livestock an opportunity to learn just how devastating ASF is and would be should it come to the western hemisphere, Torrison said.

Torrison, the director of the Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, said that while the outlook is bleak for China’s swineherd, U.S. producers should be cautiously optimistic in their capabilities to ward off the disease.

“People are very concerned that they have the testing capability to stay ahead,” Torrison said. “A big part of my message is that we’ve got the people and the laboratories in place.”

The reality is, he said, that 10 of the diagnostic laboratories across the U.S. have been preparing for and doing surveillance on diseases like ASF for longer than it’s been a global issue. Another 40 labs across the nation are prepared to test for it if the need arises, and more can help respond.

As labs prepare for the possibility of an outbreak, many of them, including South Dakota State University’s own diagnostic lab, are upgrading at the opportune time.

“It’s fortuitous that people are upgrading,” Torrison said.

Not to downplay the positive message about U.S. preparedness, Torrison said that our location cannot be ignored in its importance. As China and other Southeast Asian countries struggle to contain the disease, the U.S. remains relatively safe being bordered by oceans. However, that has led to a host of other issues, Preisler said.

Preisler serves as the CEO of the Minnesota Pork Board and has recently been in Washington, D.C., to urge members of Congress and those in power to add more security to customs procedures. With that, the National Pork Board, along with the state boards, asked for 600 additional agricultural inspectors at the border to make sure they can identify unsafe imports.

“We just need to keep it out of this country and out of this hemisphere,” Preisler said.

While more inspectors would be great, Spronk said the timing is off.

“It should have happened in August 2018,” Spronk said.

Discussions like the one planned for Farmfest try to toe the line between being positive and forthcoming about the dangers of ASF and other major diseases. Preisler, Spronk and Torrison all agreed that producers, in general, accept hard facts above all else.

“All farmers want good information to base their decisions off of,” Preisler said.

Torrison’s approach is to give both sides of the spectrum for information. As the head of a major diagnostic lab, it’s hard to tell people not to worry, he said, but he also doesn’t want people believing the labs haven’t seen this kind of disease before.

“I try to talk out of both sides of my mouth,” he said.

Several outbreaks over the last few years, including lessons learned from avian influenza, have helped labs understand ways to work through systems set up to combat pandemics, Torrison said.

As U.S. producers gain insight into the disease raging overseas, Spronk said the main challenge being overlooked seems to be China’s cultural approach to battling ASF and other outbreaks. When he visited China, Spronk realized they aren’t taking all the steps to stamp out the disease, as they let local entities deal with the outbreak on their own.

“Their efforts to control and eliminate would be dramatically different than what we would do right here in America,” he said.

He emphasized that he isn’t criticizing the approach, just acknowledging that China doesn’t need to export to survive so they don’t have to do all that is necessary to increase consumer confidence. While in the U.S., more than a quarter of ag products are exported, and markets would be devastated should an outbreak occur.

Because of this, Preisler said the National Pork Board and several states have already put together media packets incase an outbreak occurs at home. This was done to ease consumer confidence, something that the U.S. would have to focus on immediately.

“This is an example of a disease that has zero food safety impacts. It doesn’t affect people and doesn’t affect other animals,” Preisler said.

In addition to plans and strategies to control the message, even commercials have been shot that would air if ASF move overseas. Although, Preisler said he hopes those never see the light of day.

While ASF steals the spotlight, Preisler and Torrison stressed that it isn’t the only threat to U.S. producers. China has outbreaks of classical swine fever and foot and mouth disease, both of which would be devastating to the U.S. as well.

ASF gets the headlines, he said, because there is no vaccine.

“It’s the worst disease in the world for pigs,” Preisler said. “That’s reality.”

Torrison, who has seen up close how foot and mouth disease and classical swine fever can affect herds of all kinds, said labs haven’t lost sight of less high-profile diseases even. Heightened awareness around ASF has actually helped bring more security to U.S. ports, he said.

“We’re still very nervous that one could slip in somehow,” he said. “The rising tide floats all boats for disease preparedness.”

Spronk just wants people to understand the consequences of ASF making it across U.S. borders.

“It’s going to affect the entire barnyard,” he said.

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Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.