By Chris Jackson

 

March this year saw me back in China following a very successful exhibition in Thailand, at VIV Asia 2019, a global meeting point for our industry.

The reason for the extended tour was to speak at a conference jointly sponsored and organised by Perendale Publishers who produce Milling and Grain magazine, as well as Famsun, probably China's largest manufacturer of milling equipment. The conference was arranged to address the biggest problem that the Chinese pig industry has ever faced - African Swine Fever.

This initiative, undertaken by the two sponsors, was a very timely intervention to try and help large pig farmers both better understand the disease and to discuss methods that could be adopted to try and reduce the spread and protect their herds from this now almost global problem.

For me, a UK farmer, it was very heartening to see that the feed industry was taking the initiative to help Chinese farmers. This disease has far-reaching consequences affecting all sectors of our industry and the public at large who face a shortage of pig meat with consequential higher prices for the consumer. From a farmer's perspective, we concentrate on the devastation that it causes us but often do not stop to consider the knock-on effect.

We heard, in the morning of the conference, from eminent Chinese experts talking about the disease and how it spreads, along with the Government's plans to eradicate the disease, which they admit will be a long-term project. It took 30 years to clear the Iberian Peninsula of the disease, where pig density was a lot lower. Therefore, they understand well the probable time scale needed to bring this disease under control.

The government have put in place measures to encourage farmers to monitor their herds for signs of disease with a compulsory slaughter and compensation plan. In addition, it has also implemented a plan to have disease monitoring and testing at all abattoirs with severe penalties if they do not comply. This very positive step will benefit consumers as they will have more confidence in the safety of their meat.

At farm level, the percentage of mortality and the compulsory slaughter leads to the problem of safe and effective methods of carcass disposal. The devastation to the Chinese industry is almost too terrible to contemplate with somewhere in the region of five percent of the world's pig population already lost and the spread continuing with the most likely cause of the spread being associated with humans when you consider the distances that the disease has leapt to infect new premises.

Milling and Grain took a leading role in this conference initiative to help the industry by bringing myself and two other speakers from the UK to address over 160 delegates.

First from the UK to speak was Dr Lawrence Brown, a veterinary surgeon and specialist in animal sciences from the Department of International Trade. He started by giving an overview of the cause of the spread--the one good thing being that it is not an airborne virus.

Because this is now a global problem, along with other research laboratories the UK is also helping to look for an effective method for control and they are developing a vaccine. Unfortunately for the industry, this is still many years from becoming a commercial proposition.

Another major problem facing control measures is that animals can be infected and viremic for many days before showing clinical signs of infection and rapid death. Therefore, the best option for control will be a vaccine.

Next to speak was Dr Mike Button, also a veterinary surgeon who has a long experience of implementing bio security systems for intensive livestock production globally.

He outlined the necessity for correct disinfection using the correct product that will actively destroy this particular virus, with an emphasis on cleanliness and limiting access. In fact, bio-security was a major theme for the day's various presentations.

As currently there is no cure for this disease prevention is the only answer. This was the theme of my paper, for which I based on my own experiences keeping our farm free from the disastrous outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease that we suffered in the UK in 2000. That devastating outbreak was spread across the UK by animal and people movements.

When outbreaks occurred, exclusion zones were set up and manned by police and because of the scale they were helped by the army. With animals in contact zones slaughtered and burned on site eventually, without using vaccines, the disease was eliminated.

The effect that this had on the farming population cannot be underestimated and I am not talking solely about financial losses, but also the psychological effects on farmers seeing all their animals slaughtered.

There was also the problem for farmers who did not succumb to the disease of not being able to move animals to slaughter. For the pig industry, in particular, this created terrible animal welfare issues with production continuing and no outlet for market-ready livestock.

Our industry simply had to find a better way of protecting itself without resorting to vaccination which, at least for Foot and Mouth Disease, is available.

Therefore, working with our government in the UK, our industry took on board the lessons learned and developed an animal welfare code along with a rigorous recording system for all animal movements.

This proved very effective when in 2017, when we suffered another outbreak which was contained to a small area of our country by quick diagnosis and instant implementation of exclusion zones, which were put into effect around farms known to have had contact with infected animals.

From my own experience, strictly enforced bio-security has to be key to prevention and if there is a single lapse a lifetimes work can be undone, so we cannot stress the importance of this enough.

Because we are seeing African Swine Fever in Northern Europe now, we in the UK are well aware of the risks that this could pose even to our island state. To help avoid infection our industry has set up a contingency plan, should we ever detect an outbreak based on our experience with Foot and Mouth Disease.

In addition, we are continually educating our farmers about the risks and how diseases can be spread - again bio security and education are key factors in controlling and eliminating disease.

The world that we live in today, with people having little, if any, understanding of the risks from the spread of diseases, the global impact that this has on the food industry means that at farm level we have to be even more vigilant if we are to protect our animals, crops and livelihoods.

Education and training must play a key part in this and the initiative that the sponsors took in arranging this conference in Beijing at short notice has not to be underestimated and should be applauded.

If this format could be rolled out in a different region latter in the year it will be, I am sure, a major help to the industry.

It is important that when problems occur people come together to share their experiences, so that positive messages and methods of control can be developed not only for China but for the rest of the world where African Swine Fever and other diseases are causing major problems for farmers, their families and the wider economies.

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