Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get much worse, along come Canadian pork producers to remind us that a perilous pig disease called African Swine Fever is knocking on our country’s door… and to ask Ottawa to set aside $50 million in the upcoming budget to fight it.
This is neither a dramatic nor an opportunistic request. COVID-19 has reminded us how viral diseases like this get around.
In fact, we’re lucky African Swine Fever hasn’t found its way here yet. In the past three years, it’s spread across eastern Europe and Asia, striking fear across the pork sector. In China, it’s believed to be responsible for 180 million hogs dying, depleting that country’s overall herd by 40 per cent. That kind of devastation can take decades to recover from. Who’s next? Canada?
Lucky for humans, African Swine Fever doesn’t affect them. But it certainly wreaks havoc on pigs, causing a high fever, decreased appetite and weakness in swine of all ages. And once they start exhibiting signs of infection, death usually occurs in less than 10 days.
Survival is possible but carries its own problems: in recovery, animals can still carry the virus for several months. So, countries that normally import your pork want nothing to do with your shipments. Your reputation as a quality meat supplier is shot.
And that’s key. Canada exports $4 billion worth of pork to more than 90 countries.
Understandably, all this worries Canadian pork producers, who are already having a rough year because of reduced processing capacity resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
Rick Bergmann, a Manitoba pork producer and chair of the Canadian Pork Council, says the consequences of African Swine Fever being detected in Canada would be devastating.
He says the impact would be felt immediately and cost the sector as much as $50 billion.
First, quarantines would be established followed by an eradication plan to try and stop the disease. Bergmann predicts eradication alone would cost millions, not to mention the awful public relations that results from an industry killing its own animals, even if they see no other choice.
Then, the border would close. Nothing would get out, similar to when Canadian beef producers faced closed borders because of BSE in the early 2000s. Those consequences still linger in the beef sector, but Bergmann believes the consequences would be worse for pork – 70 per cent of Canada’s pork production is exported, compared to around 45 per cent of beef.
Then as borders close and exports stop, he says processors will be forced to cut capacity or close completely. Sounds familiar? Shades of the COVID-19 impact on processing plants.
And finally, as processors stop processing, pork producers will be left with no market for millions of pigs.
“Farmers will go out of their way to limit the fallout, but it will be severe,” he says. “Financially they will see businesses they have poured their soul into losing value overnight. Their income will disappear. In the meantime, an animal welfare crisis will be created as farmers figure out what to do with millions of pigs that no longer have a market. The financial and animal welfare crises will lead to a mental health crisis…and kill the family farm. To say the impact will be devastating is an understatement.”
Bergmann says Canada’s pork producers and the federal government have already invested significantly in prevention, spending millions of dollars across the country to improve on-farm biosecurity.
But, he says, more can and needs to be done, which is where the $50 million ask comes in. The pork industry has worked up a seven-point plan for spending the money, with a share going to boosting biosecurity and traceability and increasing research, among other things.
My son-in-law and daughter are pork producers, so I have some skin in the game when it comes to protecting the industry. But so do many of us. Pork is one of the most affordable meat proteins available, and we produce a lot of it. Helping keep the sector free of African Swine Fever is vital.