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Why good biosecurity is essential now to minimise ASF threat

3rd Apr 2019 / By Alistair Driver

NPA chief executive Zoe Davies has urged all pig keepers to step up their biosecurity to ensure the African swine fever (ASF) virus is kept out of the UK herd.

Zoe NewburyShe stressed, in particular, the need to ensure lorries transporting pigs are being washed thoroughly and in line with current protocols.

Zoe updated the South Central NPA Spring Regional meeting at Newbury, on Tuesday night, about the current ASF situation.

There have now been more than 100 cases officially confirmed in China, while the virus has now spread to Vietnam and Cambodia. There are fears other countries in the region will be affected.

It has emerged over the past few weeks that the outbreak appears to have been vastly under-reported. China’s pig herd is currently down nearly 20% year-on-year and annual productivity is forecast to take a massive hit. As a result, China is likely to significantly ramp up import levels, which is likely to have a positive on the global pork market.

The virus is also present in a number of European countries, although, according to APHA surveillance, the number of cases in domestic pigs has been falling in recent months. There have now been more than 700 cases in wild boar in Belgium, although these have been confined to the core area and, so far, no cases have been detected over the nearby French border.

But while UK producers stand to benefit from the knock-on effect of the Chinese outbreak, Zoe outlined her fears about the threat the virus poses to the pig industry.

Border controls

“The biggest concern for me at this moment is infected product getting into the country,” she said.

Zoe pointed out that contaminated meat has already been found at ports and airports in several countries, including Australia, the US, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. But while the likes of the US, where one million tonnes of smuggled Chinese imports were seized in March, Canada and Australia have been ‘massively ramping up’ their border controls, there is little sign of similar activity in the UK.

“There might be a few posters and a few products seized, but there is just not the same level of concern. We have been putting a lot of pressure on Defra to press UK Border force to raise its level of interest in these kinds of products, particularly from China, and increase its resource.”

Biosecurity controls

In reality, the disease might be already in the country, she added. Or if it isn’t, it could enter at any time.

It is therefore critical that the industry does everything in its power to keep ASF out of our pigs, a scenario that would have devastating consequences, including lengthy and costly movement restrictions, the culling of infected and possibly at-risk herds and the loss of our lucrative export markets, not to mention knock-on effects for allied businesses and the likely closure of parts of the countryside.

Modelling by SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College, has highlighted how difficult it would be to detect the virus on farms, given that, while infectious, it is a ‘slow burner’. Based on data from outbreaks in Georgia, it usually takes about 13-17 days for pigs to die and they are infectious for half that time.

African swine fever symptomsWhen disease is in the country, even with surveillance in place, Russian cases has shown it can take 32 days on average to detect cases, with the first index case taking longer at around 40 days.

SRUC modelling, using real eAML2 pig movement data and accounting for local spread, showed how the virus could spread across the country in weeks if it got into the key pig producing areas. “The real concern is that it could be everywhere before we even knew it had arrived,” Zoe said.

“One of the biggest issues they discovered was lorries,” she said. “We have woefully poor lorry washing facilities in the UK compared with a lot of other countries.”

In particular Zoe highlighted the use of private haulage companies, which account for 40% of pig moves. The risk associated with haulage was recently highlighted by a spate of swine dysentery cases in parts of the country.

SRUC modelling showed when haulage companies are not factored in, the predicted ASF epidemic size is between 9 and 193 infected premises. Add in potential vehicle contamination and this rises to between 118 and 775 premises.

“Even if you are only transporting pigs to slaughter and abide by all of your standstill regulations, you are still at risk. The longer that lorries are left contaminated, the more farmers are susceptible. Even a single extra day of contamination makes a massive difference,” Zoe said.

“Good biosecurity is critical. Lorries must be cleaned to the standard that would prevent disease being transported around the country.

“There is no point becoming good at biosecurity once the disease has hit the country - it is too late. People need to be thinking now about the biosecurity they are employing on the farm and what they expect from hauliers.”

To view AHDB’s standard operating procedures for lorry washing and other aspects of pig farm biosecurity, click here

Educating the public

Zoe also highlighted the risk posed by the public discarding infected meat in places accessible to pigs. “Classical swine fever in 2000 was caused by an Asian strain, which got into an outdoor pig unit in East Anglia. This could happen today if someone walking past your pigs is unaware of the risks,” she said.

Dont feed pigs signShe urged producers that have not done so already to get hold of free signs produced by AHDB warning the public not to feed the pigs. Email:  to request them.

The signs are part of a wider Government-industry campaign warning pig keepers and the general public about the risk of feeding meat to pigs.

Feral pigs

The situation in Europe has highlighted the risk of spread by feral pigs and how difficult it is to stop once populations are infected.

Zoe explained how the NPA had asked AHDB to set up a feral boar action group which was working with the local council and forestry officials to raise awareness of risks associated with feeding the Forest of Dean’s growing feral pig population.

The group is also developing a coherent strategy for controlling feral pig numbers in the UK and reducing the threat they pose in terms of disease spread. “Defra has agreed to update its Feral Boar Action Plan and has asked us to help,” she said. 

Useful web links

  • See the NPA's dedicated ASF web pages here
  • A summary of the key messages for keeping African swine fever out of the UK can be viewed on the NPA website here
  • Defra-APHA summarise the symptoms and provide biosecurity advice here 
  • A campaign to highlight the dangers of swill feeding and more information can be found on this link. All pig keepers and the public must ensure pigs are not fed catering waste, kitchen scraps or pork products. Feeding of meat products to feral pigs is also illegal.
  • Defra-APHA have published some photos of clinical signs of disease of African swine fever on Flickr.
  • A Defra-APHA poster for pig keepers summarising actions they can take can be downloaded here