Canada steps up efforts to prevent African swine fever from devastating pork industry

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The greatest threat to Canada’s pork industry is one that has yet to arrive.

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African swine fever has hit 74 countries since 2005, while four countries reported their first cases in 2022 alone. If the disease arrived in Canada, the hog industry would shut down overnight, as the industry exports 70% of what it produces.

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Martin Weldner, board member and treasurer of Alberta Pork, said some estimates have the industry shrinking to 15-20% from its current size due to the pork surplus Canada suddenly has. .

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“The hog industry in Alberta would bring it to its knees,” said Weldner, hog operations manager for Heartland Colony for 23 years.

According to Statistics Canada, Alberta exported $579,837,485 worth of pork and pork products in 2021, while nationally that figure was more than $5.7 billion.

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African swine fever does not pose a risk to humans and is not a food safety concern, but it is highly contagious and has a high mortality rate in domestic, commercial and feral pigs.

Canadian livestock producers have already experienced the nightmare of a disease entering a heavily exported animal population.

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In 2003, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, was discovered in a cow in Alberta. The United States immediately closed the border to Canadian beef and cattle, and much of the international market soon followed in their footsteps. The 49th parallel was welded together for more than two years, costing producers billions of dollars, decimating the national herd and forcing many producers out of the industry altogether.

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The beef sector has still not fully recovered.

African swine fever could be even more devastating because of the pigs’ reproductive cycle – a sow can breed up to three times a year with litters of 11-13 pigs – its contagious viral nature and the strain it would put on the processing sector without international customers. The price would drop and many growers would be forced out of the industry at a time when the world faces growing food shortages.

“Every week new piglets are born, every week pigs have to be sent to market and that’s all most farms would have,” Weldner said. “In the hog industry, the maximum you could wait to ship animals would be five to six days. Affected areas should immediately begin to consider some form of euthanasia, even in an area that is not affected.

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The impacts would reach beyond producers to all industries that affect the sector, from veterinarians to animal feed companies, transport companies and slaughterhouses.

Due to the way African swine fever spreads, it can be difficult to control.

The disease is extremely resistant and can survive in processed pork products. There is concern that if affected products imported into Canada are improperly disposed of, they could be consumed by a pig or wild boar. All it would take is for that animal to come into contact with a pig on a commercial or hobby farm.

That would be game over for many.

The federal government learned from mad cow disease, which did not start in Canada. But global lessons were ignored at the time and the industry was forced to react after it was too late, by instituting changes in feed monitoring and regulation.

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Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, recently announced $45.3 million in funding for the prevention of African swine fever.

“That’s one of the top priorities, in my mind,” she said. “The first part is really to prevent and prepare. And then we continue to work with the provinces and the industry.

The minister has been working on this issue since she received the portfolio three and a half years ago and noted that the government had worked with the United States before that.

Specifically, Animal Health Canada launched a national African Swine Fever project in 2018 with representatives from across the country and a wide range of related sectors, including Alberta Chief Provincial Veterinarian Dr. Keith Lehman.

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Canada currently has zoning agreements in place with the United States, which would help expedite the reopening of trade should a case arise. Officials are working on others. This would mean that instead of stopping trade for years after African swine flu is detected, it would take weeks or months once the problem has been isolated.

More than $23 million is allocated to prevention and mitigation efforts within the industry by improving biosecurity assessments, feral hog management, slaughterhouse upgrades, sector analysis and research projects related.

Weldner pointed to the biosecurity controls currently in place on commercial farms, and it would be extremely unlikely that a commercial barn would be an infection site if African swine fever came to Canada.

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Another $19.8 million is for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, to support increased laboratory capacity and the establishment of zone agreements with trading partners, and to help fund international efforts to control African swine fever – this includes work on a vaccine for Canadian farms.

Efforts and interest in a vaccine gained momentum in 2018 when fever emerged in China, but Lehman said a vaccine is not on the way to hitting the market and is not not a magic bullet for prevention in this case.

The challenge is to develop a strategy to differentiate vaccinated animals from infected animals to show that the pig or exported pig is positive due to inoculation and not infection.

“Would you use it when you didn’t have the disease? Probably not,” said Alberta’s top vet. “Would you use it when you start to see the first signs of an outbreak? Yes, potentially. If you have significant enough signs of an outbreak, it’s probably easier to answer the question in terms of yes.

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Although funding allocations are not confirmed at this stage, the CFIA Winnipeg lab would likely receive the bulk of this funding, although the two Alberta labs will also see an increase in funding to improve the testing capacity.

Gary Stordy, director of government and corporate affairs for the Canadian Pork Council, said investing in improved oversight is critical, if only to build trust and transparency in the system.

“If we can demonstrate that we have contained the situation or the spread in (other regions), it could allow, from a producer’s point of view, to move animals and export meat,” said- he declared.

The final $2.1 million will be used to strengthen border control by the Canada Border Services Agency to help prevent undeclared pork products from entering Canada.

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Weldner said prevention funding is “desperately needed,” but he also wants to see a plan in place to help protect producers if a case is discovered in Canada and to ensure appropriate measures are in place to protect livestock. These discussions are ongoing.

“The biggest fear is, especially for some of the farms that have maxed out their credit limit, that the bank will immediately tell them they can’t lend any more money,” he said. “There is immediate help that the federal government should have for these producers in terms of funding to pay for their feed that is still needed every day to feed these animals so that you don’t end up with the welfare problem animal.

[email protected]

Twitter: @JoshAldrich03

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