Opinion: Swine fever brings trade adversaries together

Capital Letters with Kelsey Johnson of iPolitics

At a time of frosty diplomatic relations and continued trade disputes, the world’s top animal health experts, industry and governments are banding together to fight a deadly hog virus.

More than 150 officials from about 15 countries descended on Ottawa recently for a global forum on African swine fever.

Their goal: to share information, learn from countries already grappling with the deadly virus and develop a broader prevention plan.

The forum was co-chaired by Canada and the United States. Among the attendees were officials from China, Mexico, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Animal Health Organization (OIE).

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African swine fever does not pose a threat to human health or food safety, but the virus, which is spread by direct and indirect contact, is lethal for pigs. The virus causes internal bleeding and fever in hogs and has a death rate of up to 90 per cent.

There is no vaccine or cure.

No cases of African swine fever have been reported in the Americas, including Canada and the U.S.

Officials want to keep it that way.

But containing the virus, which has ravaged both domestic and wild herds around the world, is no easy task. Cases have been found in many African countries, as well as in China, Vietnam, North Korea and parts of Europe.

African swine fever is a complex virus, with a changing nature that makes it hard to develop a vaccine.

While it is does not spread on the air, like avian influenza, a thimbleful of the virus is enough to cause major disarray.

Leading experts, including Canada’s own chief veterinarian, have said the best defence is biosecurity; at Canadian airports, on-farm and beyond.

Canada’s hog producers are well aware of the threat the viruses poses to their industry. In his remarks to forum attendees Rick Bergmann, the chair of the Canadian Pork Council, told the forum an outbreak in Canada would be “catastrophic.”

But the pork industry is only one piece of the prevention puzzle. Everyone has a role to play.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canada Border Services Agency have been telling passengers for months to leave their pork at home.

Signs have been posted at airports. Fines have been levied. Under Canadian rules, agents can levy fines of up to $1,300. Feed import restrictions have also been put in place.

The federal government has promised millions in funding to boost Canada’s crew of detector dog teams specially trained to sniff out meat. Social media campaigns have been launched to try and raise awareness about the virus.

Federal officials, including Canada’s chief veterinarian, say the efforts are making a difference and awareness is being raised. Still, more work lies ahead.

Meanwhile, border agents across Canada and the U.S. continue to seize illicit meat imports, including deli meats, which can preserve the virus.

All involved agree, Canada and other countries cannot ease up on their efforts.

Attendees at the forum have agreed to a framework with 16 focus areas. Officials from the Americas have also decided to form a working group similar to one already in place among Asian nations to better coordinate responses.

More meetings are set for the coming weeks and months both domestically and abroad.

The African swine fever outbreak is also expected to be discussed at the upcoming G20 agriculture ministers meeting in Japan later this month.

About the author

Contributor

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics.ca in Ottawa. Born and raised in Alberta, Kelsey credits her Western roots for sparking her interest in all things related to Canadian agriculture. In her spare time, she can be found hiking, camping or curled up with a mug of tea and book.

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