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Use of Chinese animal feed in US raises concern as killer swine disease rages abroad

Key Points
  • American pork producers are using feed from China for their pigs, raising concerns about bringing a contagious disease to the U.S.
  • African swine fever has devastated China's hog herd and has spread to other parts of Asia.
  • "Feedstuffs can carry it, and one of our concerns is we bring in vitamins and trace minerals for our pork industry from manufacturers in China," says Steve Meyer of Kerns & Associates in Iowa.
  • The fear is it could spread to U.S., where it could devastate the more than $20 billion pork industry.
Simon Clay | Getty Images

American pork producers are using feed from China for their pigs, raising concerns about bringing a contagious disease to the U.S.

At least 129 cases of the African swine fever in China have been reported since August, and the incurable viral disease has spread to other parts of Asia, including Vietnam and Mongolia. The fear is it could reach the U.S., where it could devastate the more than $20 billion pork industry.

"Feedstuffs can carry it, and one of our concerns is we bring in vitamins and trace minerals for our pork industry from manufacturers in China," said Steve Meyer, an industry expert with Kerns & Associates in Iowa. "If you get the virus in those things, they can survive for a while."

For example, Meyer said the so-called organic soybean meal — known for its high protein content — is shipped from China and typically fed to organic livestock, including to hogs. So far, the U.S. and Canada haven't banned imports of plant-based food from China, but some experts have recommended a quarantine on imported feed of at least 20 before using it.

"They are still bringing it in, but it can be done in a responsible manner," said Meyer. "We're still concerned that somebody won't be responsible, and I'd [be a] whole lot happier if we had regulations and stuff that allowed all that to happen on our shores."

China accounted for about 12% of all soybean meal the U.S. imported from abroad in 2018 although India was another significant source of the animal meal, according to WISERTrade, a Massachusetts-based trade research organization.

"Animal feed ingredients and fomites have the potential to be pathways associated with a moderate likelihood of [African swine fever virus] entry, but there is high uncertainty because of the lack of data on transmission from these sources," a recently published report from the the U.S. Department of Agriculture assessing the likelihood of swine fever entry to the U.S.

A meeting was held in Ottawa last week where U.S., Canadian and Mexican pork industry and government officials met to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of the highly contagious swine fever into North America.

"We've never had this disease here in the United States, we don't ever want to have this disease," said Dr. Dave Pyburn, a veterinarian and vice president of science and technology at the industry trade group National Pork Board. "If we were to get it, it would be devastating for our pigs."

The U.S. currently exports just under 30% of its pork, which could be at risk if the swine fever reached the domestic market, Pyburn said. He said the disease only affects pigs and not people.

Along with infected feed, experts say the swine disease can be spread by pigs' bodily fluids and their meat as well as feral hogs and the animals eating uncooked garbage. Blood-sucking ticks also can carry the virus and spread it to swine, which is believed to be primary way it initially spread in Africa.

"If the ticks were to come here and be infected, they could spread it to here," said Pyburn. "The good thing is we've got Customs and Border Patrol that not only are dealing with insects as shipments come in from other countries, but you have them making sure we don't bring in pork from these countries that have the virus."

In March, customs agents in New Jersey seized about 1 million pounds of illegal pork products coming into the U.S. from China. Also, Japanese officials last month announced they detected the virus in sausage brought in by visitors coming from China.

The U.S. government recently announced increased measures to prevent the disease from entering the domestic livestock supply, including a renewed focus on "strict on-farm biosecurity" measures and other steps. That includes new teams of specially trained detector dogs to sniff out illegal feedstuffs being brought in to airports and seaports.

Beijing hasn't divulged the exact number of hogs lost to swine fever, but Rabobank estimates up to 200 million animals could be affected and production could decline by 30%. That compares with about 75 million hogs and pigs in the total U.S. inventory.

No effective vaccine is available for the swine fever although research is underway. Among the companies conducting research are New Jersey-based Zoetis and a European company, Huvepharma.

"We are easily several years away, if not longer than that, from having an effective vaccine," said Pyburn. "This is an extremely large and complex virus, and so it's been very difficult for vaccines to be put together that are effective against it."