Dr. Don Davidson (left) and Luke Cooper place a high priority on biosecurity at Cooper Farms. Photo provided by Cooper Farms.

People, product and protocol — Biosecurity and African swine fever

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader

The world is watching African swine fever (ASF) and it is a top concern for the U.S. pork industry.

“It would be devastating for our industry. Our industry depends on exports,” said Dave Pyburn, Vice President of Science and Technology at the National Pork Board. “Immediately in the face of an outbreak of any of the big three foreign animal diseases, (classical swine fever, foot and mouth disease, and ASF), we would see all exports stop.”

ASF is not harmful to humans, but is fatal to pigs. This particular swine disease has a near 100% fatality rate according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The ASF virus originated in sub-Saharan Africa, though most of the ASF headlines have come from China. According to a Purdue Agricultural Economics report, the USDA estimates that hog slaughter and pork production are falling sharply in China as ASF continues to devastate the Chinese pork industry. China is the largest pork producer in the world and as recently as 2017 slaughtered just over 700 million pigs. In comparison, U.S. hog slaughter was expected to set a new record in 2019 at just over 134 million head. But in 2019, as the impacts of ASF became widespread, USDA estimates China’s hog slaughter declined about 15% to 600 million head. Looking ahead to 2020, the USDA anticipates a further decline of 27% to just 438 million head, which would be a massive 38% reduction in hog slaughter since 2017.

Since the first year it was detected in Asia, more than 5 million pigs died or have been culled to prevent the spread of the virus. The latest data from the FAO shows current losses represent more than 10% of the total pig population of China, Vietnam, and Mongolia. ASF has not been detected in the United States to date.

Dermot Hayes, co-director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at Iowa State University, conducted a study examining the economic impact to the U.S. pork industry of an ASF outbreak in the United States.

“In the first year the U.S. pork industry would lose $8 billion, which is mainly due to lost sales due to exports that we won’t have in place after a disease like that breaks,” Hayes said.

Don Davidson, DVM, staff veterinarian for Cooper Farms, has spent plenty of time assessing the risks for domestic hog production and learning about the specifics of ASF. The disease originated in the wild African warthog population in sub-Saharan Africa.

“There is a lot of resistance in the African warthog population through natural selection, but not in the domestic pig population,” Davidson said. “While research is still being conducted for ASF, we do have the ability through CRISPR technology that we can eliminate a number of other foreign animal diseases, but for now most resistance to these diseases will need to occur through natural selection since there is not approval and acceptance of CRISPR technology.”

For ASF to spread, it needs to be introduced directly to the pig. Animal to animal contact is the primary way ASF can spread.

“ASF is a considered a ‘large’ virus compared to some of the others. As a large virus it can survive in the environment for a longer time period than most, especially when it is cold,” Davidson said. “A study was done in which the ASF virus was frozen for 1,000 days and after that it was still able to be isolated.”

ASF can also be spread through contaminated feed ingredients or pork products.

“Certain feed ingredients and vitamins and minerals can only be sourced out of China, and those are risk factors,” Davidson said. “Since the issues of porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) in 2013 and 2014, it forced companies and suppliers in other countries to shore up their biosecurity protocols of feeds and minerals. Now we pay more attention to where the ingredients are sourced, and the storage containers and associated risk and half-life of the virus is considered.”

Given the nature of our modern production systems in the United States, Davidson summarizes the more likely threats to spread ASF from another country with initials: P-P-P (people, product, and protocol). People and products are threats number one and two.

“We might just be our own worst enemy,” Davidson said. “International travelers and smuggled pork products are the biggest threats.

“One ASF expert in Russia told us that feed is a risk factor, but it is not the number one risk factor. The biggest risk that American veterinarians should be concerned with is the movement of people and smuggled pork products. International travel has become so common. Not every port of entry to the United States follows the protocol as strictly as they should when it comes to bringing in products from other countries. International travelers are supposed to be asked if they visited a farm or have any products they brought back from another country. That does not always happen, and people are not always honest because they do not want to deal with the hassle.”

Programs including Secure Pork Supply by the National Pork Board are in place to help farms establish a protocol before a foreign animal disease is discovered and have helped many in the industry proactively prepare. Davidson believes Cooper Farms has made a commitment and created a culture of biosecurity thanks in part to programs like Secure Pork Supply.

“Cooper Farms provides excellent facilities for bio-centers and for biosecurity. We have excellent equipment and processes and procedures to manage disease. The biggest difficulty in the industry is to managing the people and having a culture that ensures the everyone follows the protocol,” Davidson said. “We have processes set up to clean and disinfect the trucks and equipment twice before they go back to the farm. There is a wash-out facility at the processing plant in Coldwater, Mich. that the trucks go through, and then the trucks go to a Cooper Farms facility in Ashley, Ohio to be washed and disinfected a second time before they are allowed to go back to the farms.”

Cooper Farms takes biosecurity very seriously.

“Millions of dollars have been spent on bio-centers that are each dedicated to certain activities. With all that investment, we can have the best facilities and procedures in place, but it only takes that one truck that skips the wash-outs, and someone at the bio-center does not catch it before it goes back to a farm, and that’s all it would take for a possible outbreak. It is a people mistake more than anything else,” Davidson said. “The number one risk factor to Cooper Farms is people — contractors/subcontractors and other people coming onto the farms. But those are also controllable.”

Location is another tool for biosecurity.

“The sow farms are located more in the north, and away from many of the grower and finishing barns. They have a higher level of biosecurity, and the same trucks that go to the Coldwater processing plant with the market hogs do not visit the sow farms. Employees park further away from the sow farms. We close entrance gates to keep people from entering the farms. Employees must shower-in and out of the facilities. Biosecurity is a mind-set,” Davidson said. “We are constantly checking and evaluating, is the area clean where you hang your coat and hat and take off your boots and clothes? Are the shower areas clean? We even pass our cell phones through ultra violet light boxes and chambers for bigger equipment to disinfect them. But if a UV light bulb is burned out, or if the chamber is not kept clean, it is ineffective. We have biosecurity auditors who’s only job is to make sure we are following the protocols, and if a failure occurs or an action item is found, they make sure someone follows-up on it, and the farm is re-audited in 30 days.”

Employees have requirements outside of work that must be adhered to as well.

“Employees cannot have any swine at home. If they go to a county fair, they need to be off for at least three days following. If an employee travels internationally, they need to report that and take a certain number of days off, away from the farms based on which countries they traveled in,” said Davidson. “If we follow the biosecurity protocols we already have in place, we will be able to manage the risk of African Swine Fever and the other swine diseases that threaten the U.S. swine heard. Most all of these risk factors are controllable. If we are doing good biosecurity for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) and PED, then most likely we will also not bring ASF in either.”

Davidson recommends smaller independent pig farms, show pig farms, and 4-H and FFA members participating in pig projects participate in programs like Pork Quality Assurance Plus and even become familiar with Secure Pork Supply.

“It is important to be familiar with the risks associated from not practicing biosecurity. Things as simple as getting manure on your shoes when you visit a friend’s farm will carry viruses back to your own farm. You need to recognize that there are risks associated with visiting other farms and pig shows, or having visitors to your own farm. We recommend a 72-hour rule if you visit another farm with pigs or a pig show. For 72 hours you should stay away from your own pigs to let any viruses die,” he said. “You should also thoroughly wash any clothes and the boots or shoes you wore to the other farm or show, and you should wear a different set of clothes and boots into your own barn different than what you wore to visit other pig farms or pig shows. You need to thoroughly wash your hands and clean under your fingernails. These viruses can survive even though we cannot see them, and be spread from farm to farm and to your pigs unintentionally. Practicing good biosecurity is everyone’s responsibility.”

For more information about Secure Pig Supply, visit https://www.securepork.org/

For information about Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus, visit https://www.pork.org/certifications/pork-quality-assurance-plus/

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