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Swine Scare

The outbreak of African swine fever in China is posing a new threat to the domestic pig farming industry, already jeopardized by overuse of antibiotics and poor standards on smallholdings. NewsChina investigates

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

China consumes the most pork in the world, an average of some 40 kilograms per person annually, according to the Chinese Consumption Trend Report 2018 released by consumer website weiyang.cn.  

Yet the specter of African Swine Fever (ASF) is posing an ever-increasing threat to the industry in China. Since March this year, the number of live pigs decreased by 18.8 percent year-on-year while pork prices rose 14.4 percent year-on-year in April, putting inflationary pressure on the country. The price rises have driven up the country’s CPI (consumer price index) by 0.31 percent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Official estimates indicate that pork prices may hit record high, with increases of up to 70 percent by the second half of this year, unless things change drastically.  

The first case of ASF in China was reported in August 2018 in Shenyang, Liaoning Province in China’s northeast. As of April 22, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA), 129 ASF cases have been confirmed across all 31 provincial-level regions in the Chinese mainland. MARA announced that more than one million domestic pigs were slaughtered to contain the spread of the disease. As a result, the current breeding stock is at its lowest point – 370 million – since 1992. 

ASF was discovered in Kenya in 1921 as a highly contagious and deadly viral disease affecting both domestic and wild pigs of all ages. So far it has been found in 62 countries. It is a large, complex and multi-enveloped DNA virus which spreads rapidly in pig populations and can stay alive in uncooked pig meat, thus allowing its transmission to other areas. The incubation period lasts up to three weeks and the virus can survive in freezing conditions for decades. No vaccines are available for ASF, so prevention methods, such as further surveillance, rapid response, and restriction of sales and animal movement are critical. According to Professor Chen Huanchun from Huazhong Agricultural University, the virus can spread through various ways, including kitchen scraps and catering waste and through flies and ticks. The virus cannot be transmitted to humans, and unprocessed meat must be heated to at least 60 C for 20 minutes to kill the virus. 

Technical difficulties remain in knowledge gaps concerning infection and immunity relating to the virus, so for decades, there has been no significant breakthrough on vaccine development. Chinese scientists from a number of institutions and research centers across the country have ramped up efforts to develop a vaccine since the disease spread to China last year. NewsChina learned from an inside source that so far, scientists in China have successfully separated a weak virulent strain that could potentially produce a live vaccine. “Domestic laboratories are doing animal testing for the vaccine already, and the results are quite positive,” said the source. Normally, it takes a minimum of five years for a vaccine to come to market, but the source said that under urgent situations, the timeline for the vaccine’s R&D will be shortened “as far as the security and effectiveness of the vaccine are acceptable.”  

Apart from efforts in vaccine development, other measures on the ground to contain the spread of the virus in pig farming have also been stepped up.  

Prevention Measures 
In Nong Duo Duo pig farm in suburban Zhumadian, Henan Province in Central China, home to over 1,300 pigs in an area of 20,000 square meters, technician Guo Xiu shan told NewsChina that thanks to their preventive measures, so far the virus has not affected their pigs.  

Guo said that before entering the premises, a person must be cleansed and disinfected to a strict standard and should change their footwear and clothes, and then stay in a disinfection tent for a minimum five minutes. Footwear will be cleansed and disinfected again when they leave.  

Guo has promoted the use of fermentation beds in the farm. With microorganisms contained in the fermentation material for bedding, feces decompose quickly which reduces the amount of feces for disposal.  

After the outbreak of ASF in the mainland, Guo stepped up prevention measures immediately. A disinfection pond was set up in front of the main gate to disinfect vehicle wheels. Staff movements are restricted, and food is delivered to them so they do not need to go out.  

For all pig farmers or smallholders, now is a critical moment for the survival of their enterprises. Another leading pig farm in Henan Province, Muyuan Food Cooperation Ltd. upgraded its equipment and farm management. Zhou Lanlan, quality control manager for Muyuan, told the reporter that in order to avoid potential virus transmission, vehicles carrying pig feed are not allowed to enter the premises, but must directly transfer the feed to containers outside the compound. Then the feed is automatically sent through a tunnel to each pig stand. Additional disinfection and quarantine centers are also set up for vehicle and staff inside the premises. An air purification system has been installed.  Some areas and countries that have experienced ASF outbreaks have successfully eradicated the virus by the slaughter of infected animals and those in contact with them, sanitation, disinfection measures, safe carcass disposal, movement control and effective biosecurity prevention.  

Biosecurity is a set of measures designed to contain the source of infection, reduce the risk of introduction and spread of animal diseases and enhance the immune system of animals to reduce or cleanse pathogenic organisms. 

Professor Wang Lixian from the Institute of Animal Science, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences believes biosecurity measures are the most effective, and present cost-saving solutions to contain the spread of ASF on the spot. Wang said that those visiting a pig farm outside China are required to shower, and undergo a quarantine period of at least 48 hours before or after visiting any other farms. “This is normal procedure in other countries, however inside China, some smallholders or medium-sized pig farms used to allow people and other things to move freely without strict disinfection measures at all,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Professor Wang Chuduan from the China Agriculture University pointed out the newly emerged ASF which caught most farms off-guard in China served to expose the lack of sanitation and biosecurity prevention measures for pig farms in the mainland. Chinese people’s habit of purchasing newly slaughtered pig meat from wet markets, rather than frozen meat from supermarkets, worsened the situation. This made the immediate slaughter and transportation of unprocessed meat open to spreading the virus.  

Zhou Lanlan from Muyuan said that because of ASF, there are higher requirements for domestic pig farms in biosecurity measures, thus raising the market access threshold. 

According to a November 2018 report from Rabobank, a financial services provider for the food and agribusiness sector in China, although biosecurity awareness has picked up as a result of the ASF outbreaks, biosecurity practice is still weak, due to “high stocking density, poorly equipped housing and weak management.”

Antibiotic Addiction 
Adding antibiotics into animal feed throughout a pig’s lifetime from birth, whether healthy or not, is a widespread practice in most pig farms in China.  

A study released by the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) found that “China consumed 162,000 tons of antibiotics in 2013, or more than half of the global total. About 52 percent was used on livestock and 48 percent by humans. More than 50,000 tons ended up in the water and soil.” China is the world’s largest consumer of agricultural antibiotics.  

“Adding antibiotics into pig feed has resulted in a vicious cycle,” said Guo Xiushan. It has resulted in the rise of anti-microbial resistance to viruses and destroyed the immune systems in the pig population. For many industry insiders, the fast spread of ASF this time in China is related to the overuse of antibiotics on farms.  

Globally, reducing or banning antibiotic usage in animal feed is the norm. Following the ban of all growth-promoting antibiotics by Sweden in 1986, the European Union banned the use of all antibiotics used for growth promotion in 1999. In 2018, MARA launched a pilot program aiming to eliminate the use of antibiotics in feed for livestock by 2020. A total of designated 100 livestock farms are involved in the pilot program.  

The Rabobank report states that the policy may pose great challenges to the domestic pig farming industry in the short term, but in the long term, it will “bring opportunities for upgrading China’s feed, animal health and general livestock-farming industries.” 

Management Gap 
Professor Yan Peishi of Nanjing Agricultural University said that measures including use of disinfection sprays, quarantine, using antibiotics or vaccinations are defensive reactions against potential virus threats, while managers should be proactive in their everyday practices in pig farming. “Despite establishing healthy production principles, most enterprises in the pig farming industry do not follow the rules,” Yan said. 

“The prerequisites for healthy production are the maintenance of clean air and proper temperatures, which are vital to control viruses. As a result, healthy animals can enjoy better immunity.” 

Wang Lixian regards feed, water and air as the basic elements for breeding healthy pigs. The environment of the farm itself is the key component for the pig’s quality of life. Scientific studies have proved that high temperatures significantly impair the immune system of the pig stock, even causing heart failure, while low temperatures can cause disease and diarrhea. In addition, humidity levels below 30 percent may result in the stock being prone to virus infections and respiratory diseases. High ammonia density may deteriorate the pig’s respiratory system function, further affecting immunity.  

Concerns over animal welfare in the agriculture industry garnered widespread attention in the 1960s in countries such as the US and UK. Animal welfare refers to the state of the animal. According to scientific definition, the animal enjoys good welfare if it is healthy, comfortable, well nourished, safe and able to express innate behavior, while not suffering from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress.  

On Guo Xiushan’s pig farm, the fermentation bedding improves air quality. Different from a typical factory farm where animals are reared in indoor pens in much closer proximity where the air is stifling, Guo raises 18 to 20 pigs in an area of 63 square meters, which allows more space per pig.  

“Using this fermentation bedding is a measure to improve animal welfare,” said Yan Peishi. Guo estimates that medication costs for pigs could decrease by 50 to 75 percent over the common practice of industrial farming without using fermentation bedding. He also said that workers have to make sure they turn over the bedding material at certain intervals, which is crucial to ensure it works as it should.  

In 2016, Muyuan Cooperation started using fermentation bedding and automatic feeding systems, as well as providing its pigs with opportunities to do plenty of exercise. According to Zhou Yuanyuan, as a result, the medicinal cost for each pig lowered by 25 yuan (US$3.6.)  Leading internet and online services providers, including NetEase, Alibaba and JD.com, are eyeing the market for raising healthy pigs and have started investing in high-tech pig farming management.  

The overall production capability in China’s pig farming industry is still not advanced. Small farms dominate the domestic market. Statistics indicate that over 70 percent of pork is provided by small scale farms with fewer than 500 pigs.  

In 2015, the average mortality rate for pig population was over 20 percent, much higher than that in developed countries. Each breeding sow can provide an average of 16.52 pigs, while the number in developed countries is over 25.  

This means it costs 40 percent more to raise a pig in China than in the US.  

From farming experience in developed countries, the number of pig farms will reduce by half every six to seven years, while the pig population in each farm increases significantly. Thus, according to Wang Lixian, in the future, large-scale pig farms with over 3,000 sows will be the mainstream model for the pig farming industry in China, while small scale farms will cooperate with large farms to provide services for the latter so as to minimize their own individual risks.  Wang Chuduan said that pig enterprises should reach an ideal balance between animal welfare, productive efficiency and market price. 

“This will control the spread of disease and achieve environmental protection requirements, while at the same time enhancing production and quality.”