An Urban's Rural View

Happy Year of the Pig, China

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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It's the Year of the Pig in China, but not, alas, the Year of the Pig farmer.

In the Chinese zodiac, which assigns the name of an animal to each year in its cycle of 12 lunar years, the pig's year is the 12th. The current Year of the Pig began Feb. 5 and will run until next Jan. 24, when it will be followed by the Year of the Rat, starting the cycle over again.

Pigs, in the Chinese way of thinking, are sometimes associated with wealth. (…) But Chinese pig farmers aren't likely to enjoy much prosperity this Year of the Pig. They're battling African Swine Fever, a nasty, lethal and highly contagious disease with no cure and no vaccination. (…)

Pork is far and away the most popular meat in China. To meet the demand for it, the country's pig farmers raise some 450 million hogs a year, more than double the European Union's output and five times America's.

ASF can't be transmitted to humans; there's no food-safety concern. But that's little consolation to the Chinese humans who raise pigs. This Year of the Pig, China will be culling large numbers of pigs to prevent even greater numbers from getting the disease. As of mid-February, more than a million had already been eradicated. (…)

For U.S. pork producers, ASF in China is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it could open opportunities for the U.S. to export pork to China, as Chenjun Pan explained at the DTN Ag Summit.(…) When she addressed the Summit in December, China had reported more than 70 cases in 15 provinces; around 20 provinces have it now.

On the other hand, China's problems with ASF serve as a reminder of just how difficult it is to stop the spread of this disease. The U.S. has never had a case but that doesn't mean it never will. USDA has stepped up its efforts to keep it out but some experts think it needs to do more. (…)

ASF is hard to stop because there are so many ways pigs can contract it. Ticks serve as "vectors," carrying the disease without suffering from it. Wild boars can carry it, too; in Africa, where it originated, warthogs and bush pigs are also carriers. If a pig with the disease is slaughtered, its meat can be contaminated with ASF. Humans can carry the virus on their shoes, which is why USDA has put more sniffing dogs to work at airports and border crossings.

China has banned feeding kitchen waste to pigs and required pig meat to be tested for the virus. It has also forbidden the movement of lives pigs from infected areas. (…) But the disease continues to spread.

European countries are also finding it hard to keep ASF out. From Russia, which like China has a big ASF problem, the disease has spread to the Baltic countries and parts of Eastern Europe. Romania has had numerous cases. Bulgaria, which lies to Romania's south, fenced off its land border with Romania but the disease somehow made it into Bulgaria anyway. (…)

Western Europe is bracing for an attack. In southern Belgium 522 wild boars have been found with the disease. Within a couple of miles from where they were found lie the borders of France and Luxembourg. Germany, the world's leading exporter of pork (…), is just a few miles farther away. Many countries, including the U.S., refuse to import pork from countries with ASF.

Can the U.S. survive this scourge unscathed? Even assuming USDA redoubles its vigilance, all it would take to let ASF sneak in would be one slipup in procedure, one bit of carelessness. There are no guarantees.

That's why the disease is a double-edged sword. While ASF might help American pork producers pick up some export sales in China this Year of the Pig, in the longer run they have to have serious worries about the ASF epidemic landing on our shores.

No one would blame them for preferring peace of mind -- and wishing their Chinese counterparts a happy Year of the Pig and every success in eradicating this menace.

Urban Lehner can be reached at



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