ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. — Though African swine fever hasn’t been found in pigs anywhere in the Americas, it represents a serious threat to Pennsylvania pork producers.
“We have to anticipate that we’re one of the more likely places for it to make landfall, and we have an extra obligation to be prepared for it,” said Richard Roush, dean of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
University and agency officials briefed the House and Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs committees on the disease Wednesday at Ag Progress Days.
As its name implies, African swine fever was first found in Africa. But in recent years it has shown up in Europe and Asia.
Though feral hogs might be moving the disease in some regions, humans are likely spreading it through contaminated pork or other materials.
Given the wealth of international transportation connecting to Pennsylvania, the state is quite vulnerable, Roush said.
Pennsylvania has never seen an animal disease as potentially disastrous as African swine fever, said Kevin Brightbill, the state veterinarian.
If African swine fever came to the United States, commercial swine producers could lose $8 billion, and corn and soybean producers could lose as much as $20 billion, Brightbill said.
A good chunk of those losses could come from Pennsylvania, which has 3,100 swine farms in a pork industry worth $750 million.
The continuing outbreak in China, home to two-thirds of the world’s pigs, shows just how bad things could get.
“From reports that I’m reading now, I feel very certain that half of China’s pigs have died,” Brightbill said.
The best way to fight African swine fever, clearly, is to keep it out of the country, the state and individual farms entirely.
That means port inspectors must watch out for illegal meat imports and carefully inspect foreign feed ingredients.
China is a major source of vitamins, amino acids and organic soybeans fed to livestock in the United States. Cutting-edge screening technologies are being developed that could help catch a disease carried in or on such products, Brightbill said.
Prevention also means assiduous adherence to biosecurity protocols that limit pigs’ exposure to potential disease sources, said Ernest Hovingh, a Penn State Extension veterinarian.
But farmers don’t always implement those procedures, even though the risk of a disease often persists long after worries peak.
Some factors — such as experience with a similar outbreak or exposure to media reports about a disease — increase the likelihood that a farmer will practice good biosecurity.
Increasing knowledge can also help.
At a booth at Ag Progress Days, Hovingh met a family with show hogs that was going to have visitors who had recently been to Ukraine, a country with African swine fever.
After learning more about the disease, the owner decided to ask the guests about risk factors such as unwashed clothes, he said.
Less effective than experience and education are government attempts to force farmers to practice biosecurity.
“Often we end up with protocols that are on paper, but they’re not always adopted and put into practice, which is really what we need,” Hovingh said.
Should swine fever reach the United States, farmers will need a biosecurity plan to move pigs in areas around the outbreak. That might motivate some farmers, Brightbill said.
Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro, said the desire to lock down farms against disease clashes with the desire to bring consumers onto farms to show them modern farming practices.
A group of first-graders will generally be a low risk, but farmers might want to give the visitors shoe coverings and ask if they had been with livestock that day, Hovingh said.
Of course, prevention isn’t foolproof, which makes disease identification important. The quicker a disease is identified, the more likely the damage will be minimized.
Workers should be encouraged to report health abnormalities when they see them, not wait a day to see what happens. Farmers should call their vet immediately if they have an unusual disease problem, Hovingh said.
When African swine fever is first identified in the United States, there would be a nationwide 72-hour shutdown of pig movement, and the focus would shift to managing the disease.
That would be challenging because there’s no vaccine for this disease, the disease can persist in the environment for months, and only a few disinfectants, including bleach, quaternary ammonia and iodine, are effective on it, Brightbill said.
“It’s obvious that tackling this issue requires coordination, cooperation and resources,” said Rep. Martin Causer, chairman of the House ag committee.