African Swine Fever is a devastating swine disease that has been spreading slowly around the world since it was first identified in 1921. The virus is known for causing very high mortality rates in domestic hogs and eradication of the virus is borderline impossible, since it remain dormant in soils or survive through infections in wild hogs, which don’t suffer the same high mortality as domestic breeds. Because of the virulence of the disease, the most common response after an outbreak is to cull any animals who could have been exposed.
It’s this stage of the infection cycle that drives the most fear; in the first year after China discovered ASF in their domestic herds, researchers estimate that over 43 million animals were culled to slow the spread of disease. In that time, pork prices for consumers in China exploded and pork producers throughout the country saw their livelihoods come to an end. No doubt, were ASF to be discovered on American soil, the immediate impact to the industry would painful and the disruptions to supply would be profound.
But people aren’t going to stop eating pork. ASF has no impact on human beings, so folks are still going to want their bacon. Which means that, post outbreak, the American pork production system would have to find a way to keep raising that other white meat, and US producers won’t have to reinvent the wheel, because China’s pork industry is at that stage now.
Last week, on AOA, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Joseph Yaros, President of Pipestone Veterinary Services China Division, about how the Chinese industry is rebuilding with ASF in mind, and I was struck by magnitude of management changes required and the sticker price to get an “ASF Biosecure” site up and operating.
Dr. Yaros mentioned that new hog barn sites in China are being built surrounded by a 6 or 8 foot high concrete wall with security guards controlling access. Truck washes are built outside the wall, so that incoming deliveries can be cleaned before breaching the perimeter. To minimize trucks entering the grounds, hogs which are being moved (either to a new site or to processing), aren’t loaded directly out of the barn, instead, they are carted to a single load out point through the perimeter wall. Additionally, the staff at the site lives for their shift on site, in dormitories built within the walled compound, with shower in and shower out as customary.
These facilities are still being built, tested, and refined across China, so more data and better practices might develop over time; but if this format becomes the de facto “ASF safe” type hog facility construction; the cost to produce pork in the US would skyrocket. The Chinese producer can make back some margin because their labor costs are (even with more staff), still about half the cost of American on-farm labor; and I’m confident that the American producer will be able to lower costs through digital management tools; but the physical cost of site construction will be astronomical.
I think all of us, whether we’re pork producers or just happy consumers, need to keep an eye on how the Chinese industry rebuilds, because those lessons will shape our industry could operate should ASF make it to the US. Hopefully, of course, it never comes to that.