It first appeared in China last August and since then it’s spread like wildfire, decimating China’s pork industry and affecting millions of pigs across that entire country.
From there, African swine fever has spread to Vietnam and crept into Cambodia, killing even more pigs.
Now, farmers in North Carolina watch nervously, hoping the disease doesn’t make it across the Pacific Ocean.
“I am terrified. Every pig farmer I know is terrified,” said Jan Archer, an owner of Archer Farms in Goldsboro, which has more than a thousand pigs.
African swine fever isn’t harmful to humans, but it is especially fatal to pigs and spreads quickly. Rabobank, a Dutch bank, estimated the disease will affect 150 million to 200 million pigs in China, the biggest pork producer in the world, this year.
“It could completely devastate our industry, so we are taking it very seriously,” said Jen Kendrick, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Pork Council, an advocacy group for the pork industry. “They are estimating that China has already lost ... what would be our entire production in the U.S.”
North Carolina is the nation’s second biggest pork producing state, with around 9 million pigs raised here, mainly in the eastern portions of the state. It trails only Iowa in the numbers of pigs within its borders.
But even an outbreak in faraway Iowa would hurt the state because African swine fever is labeled a trade-limiting disease, similar to something like foot-and-mouth disease.
That means if just one outbreak were reported in the nation, then exports of that product from anywhere in the nation would halt, until further studies could be done or the disease is cleared. Concern is so high that the disease could travel to the U.S. that the World Pork Expo in Iowa was canceled for just the second time in its history. (The other time it was canceled was in 2001 due to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom.)
More than 25% of pig products in the state end up being exported, according to the N.C. Pork Council, with Mexico being the biggest recipient of that trade. China was No. 2, but rising tariffs have dampened that trade.
“If we immediately lost our export market ... it would keep all of our pork on our shores,” said Archer, a member of the National Pork Board. “My farm would likely go out of business.”
Doug Meckes, the state veterinarian within the N.C. Department of Agriculture, said the state is alert to the danger of the disease. Just this month, Meckes, a former veterinarian from Apex, traveled to Canada to meet with Canadian and Mexican officials about how the three countries would respond to an outbreak in North America.
“We should be very concerned,” Meckes told The N&O.
Meckes said the disease, which causes hemorrhaging in pigs, spreads quickly and the death rate is “anywhere from 70 to 90%.” “The virus is very contagious on a farm and given the housing with many pigs in the same house, the potential for spread is significant,” he added.
Meckes said his department is stressing that farms should be doing everything they can to limit outside exposure to their pigs. That could mean doing things like making every person shower and change clothes before they enter a farm and disinfecting trucks and shipments brought to the farm.
And at airports and ports across the United States, customs and border protection is beefing up security to intercept products that could potentially carry viruses, intercepting 4,000 to 5,000 products a day, he added.
In recent years, diseases like avian influenza and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDs) have been spread by the trucks that take feed to farms and move nearly a million pigs across the country every day, Meckes said. In some cases, truck drivers aren’t allowed out of their trucks anymore.
“In front of every coffee pot, in every truck stop in the Midwest, you could find the virus (PEDs) on the floor,” Meckes said. “Truck drivers came in, got their coffee, went to the next farm, delivered their pigs and left the virus behind.”
Archer said her farm, and many others, are currently in “lockdown” mode, where anybody coming from the outside has to change clothes and take showers before they can cross onto the property.
“You have to take a shower before you go in,” she said. “Everyone does, even if you are just fixing a washer. Nothing can come in, not your clothes or your glasses.”
Both small farms and large ones in China have suffered from the African swine fever outbreak, The South China Morning Post reported. Meckes said he thinks that many of those small farms in China weren’t implementing safety precautions with their pigs.
But, this disease hasn’t allowed much preparation because of how fast it has moved. “To be honest, we’re still ramping up to develop a full-scale informational program that we can use” in North Carolina, Meckes said. “And that’s because this disease literally came out of nowhere.”
Ben Grimes, a small farmer who sells about 50 pigs per year to individuals and farmers markets, said he isn’t overly worried about the threat of African swine fever. On his farm, in Hurdle Mills in northern Orange County, the pigs aren’t contained in a barn, rather they roam a small portion of his property. They don’t have many interactions with outsiders.
He said because he doesn’t have much exposure to the rest of the pig industry — he gets his organic feed from a local mill and his pigs aren’t moved on and off his farm routinely by truck — the risks for exposure will be lessened.
“There was a scare a few years ago (with PEDs and avian flu) and that more or less came to nothing for people like myself,” said Grimes, who also raises turkeys, ducks and chickens. “Generally, when dealing with the kind of farm I operate you are out of that cycle. You can get infected and it is a reality, but more or less since I don’t have pigs coming in and out, you don’t have those kind of issues.”
But he does understand that a virus could make its way from many places, such as other truck tires at the local feed mill or the small farm in Saxapahaw where he gets his piglets twice a year.
“If I was buying pigs from Craigslist and things were coming in and out all the time, then that would be scary because you would be risking contamination,” Grimes said. “But this is a closed cycle.”
Small farms can also be vulnerable to contact from feral pigs, so if wild pigs were to get the disease, it would be smaller farms at risk, Meckes said. Grimes said feral pigs are always a risk to the farm, but he also downplayed those concerns.
“I know that there are feral pigs in this region, but I have never heard of a feral pig in Orange County,” he said. “I have heard of them in (neighboring) Caswell County, but I have never seen a feral pig on my farm in six years.”
Even still, Grimes is careful about who he lets near the pigs. Before letting this reporter and a photographer see them he asked where we had been in the past few days and if we had been exposed to any other pigs.
A potential upside?
If the disease were to make it to North America, it likely wouldn’t just affect the export market — domestic consumption would likely also take a dive.
Despite African swine fever proving no health risk for humans, Meckes said, the National Pork Council estimates that there could be a 50% drop in pork consumption in the U.S. because consumers would be unnerved by the news. A similar drop happened in 2009 when the swine flu swept into the U.S., Meckes said.
But if the country does manage to keep the disease away, U.S. farmers could benefit from the massive amounts of pork being taken off the global market. Prices for pork are already expected to rise, The Wall Street Journal reported.
“We can’t benefit too much (from China’s need to import) because of the tariffs,” Archer said. “But the (European Union) will benefit and that means they will pull out of other markets and we can fly into markets where we have trade agreements.”
“But if we do get it, then we’re S.O.L.,” she added.