Something bad is happening to Chinese hogs. As of this writing, the Chinese government announced a major overhaul of the country’s swine production system in an effort to curb an outbreak of swine fever running rampant in the country’s pig population.
What’s swine fever? Otherwise known as hog cholera, it is an ailment that once sent chills up pig farmers’ spines. Its symptoms include depression, going off feed, high fever, skin lesions and gastrointestinal issues (constipation, scouring, vomiting). These symptoms once indicated the contraction of a disease that usually proved fatal in about two weeks. A viral infection that spreads rapidly and efficiently, swine fever was first recorded stateside in 1810 in Tennessee and quickly spread in reputation and impact by decimating herds of pigs across the country.
Yikes, right? The good news (aside from the fact that it’s not transmissible to humans) is that the U.S. eradicated what’s now called classical swine fever with a program, executed at the industry as well as state and federal government levels, that began in the 1962 and completed 16 years later in 1978. Hog farmers no longer worry about a viral wipeout in the U.S., though swine fever remains a problem in other parts of the world and is still closely monitored by the USDA.
Today’s Threat: African Swine Fever
Which brings us to those sick Chinese hogs. The specific ailment is a strain known as African swine fever, or ASF, for its first reported outbreak on the continent in 1907, followed by a description from Kenya in 1927. (ASF is spread by ticks and populations of wild hogs.) ASF stayed in Africa until the middle of the century, when it spread to Portugal, showed up in other European countries and is now a problem in Asia. Countries have dealt with outbreaks with varying levels of success, including effective slaughter-based eradication programs in Spain and Portugal as well as the Chinese government’s current attempts to deal with it.
ASF surfaced in China in August of last year, and close to 40,000 hogs were culled by the end of the following month. A recent report out of China was of 900,000 slaughtered pigs; experts believe that to be a very low estimate. And still it marches across Asia. Recent ASF outbreaks were seen in Vietnam, and another strain of swine fever showed up in Japan.
Can ASF happen here? It hasn’t yet, but folks in the pork industry closely watch the disease as it creeps across the globe. If it does arrive stateside, it would almost certainly be disastrous to industrial pork farmers in areas such as Iowa and North Carolina.
All that is scary stuff, but let’s take a deep breath, because we’re not concentrated-animal-feeding-operation farmers breeding 1,000 pigs at any given time. We’re hobby farmers raising a couple of pigs or a few small herds, and we don’t stand to face overnight bankruptcy if our pigs start scouring. This is a moment where we can look at the state of industrialized farming and feel good about raising food for ourselves and maybe our communities. Smithfield Foods and its parent company WH Group LLC should be nervous—these companies raise the most pigs, and much of that pork is in China—but that’s not what we do.
That said, caution is key in any livestock operation, even just a few backyard animals, and biosecurity should be central to everything you do—you spend time and energy on your animals and owe it to yourself and them to keep them well. Merck’s Veterinary Manual has a three-level way of thinking about biosecurity, but some basic best practices include:
- Keep it clean: Cleanliness is at the heart of good farming, and you and your animals are happiest in a tidy space. Muck out pig barns and refresh spent straw, as pathogens and viruses such as ASF are spread through feces. Keep things tidy and clear, reducing areas rodents (and their parasites, such as ticks) can take refuge.
- Mind what you bring in: If and when swine fever makes it back into the states, it will probably be through some human carrying contaminants across the border. You can bring hazardous organisms onto the farm as well, even on your tires and boot soles. Make sure you’re not driving in or near your pig habitats, and pay attention to how water runs into pastures. When you walk around another farmer’s place, wash your boots with a strong sanitizer before traipsing around your own property.
- Limit visitors: Many of us like showing off our farms, but every visitor to your pigs is a biosecurity compromise. You don’t have to erect a steel wall and lock out the world, but be careful about who visits and where they visit from.
Realistically, some day your animals might come down with something. If they do, do the right thing and alert your veterinarian or local authorities. While the chances of mass slaughter are low, what’s happening in China shows it’s possible; if that ever happens to your farm animals, realize it’s not about you. We’re all part of an agricultural system, and while you might not agree with how the CAFO farmers in Iowa raise their hogs, they don’t deserve to have their livelihoods compromised by an infectious disease, and their hogs don’t need to suffer if a solution is available.