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Hog losses in China intentionally underreported

Scott Olson_Getty Images News younger hogs on a farm
Animal health officials in China aware of ASF outbreaks within jurisdictions but won't report outbreaks.

Estimating the hog losses in China due to the African swine fever (ASF) is difficult due to the country’s underreporting, but a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) suggests -- and confirms what many have been saying -- that the losses are much larger than what is being reported.

“Based on extensive interviews with industry and supported by price dynamics" for live animals and feed, FAS reported that the true number of ASF outbreaks "far exceeds" the number China’s Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Affairs has reported to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), "which should not currently be taken as an indicator of the severity of the situation in China.”

As of July 2, 2019, China had reported 144 outbreaks to OIE. However, FAS noted that while these reports contain the minimum required information (e.g., location, date, number of animals culled, etc.), they generally do not include epidemiological information.

“Each outbreak is reported as a new outbreak, with no linkage information related to the index farm. In other words, based on the available information, it appears China is treating each outbreak as if it were the first appearance of ASF in the particular area, even when the outbreaks seem to be within close temporal and physical proximity,” the report explained.

Currently, FAS is estimating losses in 2019 in a range from 10% to as much as 70%. As of right now, China's total herd inventory is estimated to see a 21% decrease in 2019, from 428 million head to 340 million head. FAS also estimates a further 10% decrease to the hog inventory in 2020.

Underreporting greatest obstacle

According to the FAS GAIN Report, underreporting has been “one of the greatest obstacles” to controlling the disease.

“One of the likely reasons for underreporting lies with the role of provincial governments,” FAS noted. “Industry reports that local and provincial animal health officials are aware of outbreaks within their respective jurisdictions but refuse to report these outbreaks to higher level authorities to avoid the appearance of not controlling ASF.”

The industry has also reported to FAS that when presented with evidence of ASF outbreaks on farms, local and provincial officials have requested -- and, in some cases, demanded -- that farmers not report the ASF outbreak due to the lack of local or provincial funds.

“Rather than pay the farmer a per head subsidy to cull their animals, officials have reportedly promised support to help farmers restock their herds. This likely leads to further spread of the disease due to improper disposal of affected animals,” the agency reported.

FAS further noted that despite a significant decrease in the number of OIE reports, ASF outbreaks continue to appear in distant areas. This creates great uncertainty as to the actual conditions leading to the spread of the disease, the agency noted.

This lack of accurate reporting not only undermines the severity of the ASF situation, FAS said, but also prevents effective epidemiological investigations, which are key to developing countermeasures that address the specific situation.

According to FAS, one potential blind spot in existing ASF countermeasures is the possibility of the disease circulating through contaminated commercial feed.

“Corn and other feed grains are commonly dried on roadsides, which are also traversed by trucks carrying hogs. In one study, numerous samples of Chinese feed were analyzed, and 1-2%  tested positive for ASF,” the report said.

Through interviews with multiple contacts, FAS also found that very few Chinese farmers are concerned about commercial feed being a possible ASF vector. However, one contact did report being aware of the risk and using high-temperature treatment on all of their feed. Still, due to the lack of public information about how ASF is being transmitted through China, FAS this potential gap in ASF countermeasures will likely continue, extending the time necessary for effective control.

“In summary, the animal health situation is dire. Without a change in the policy response by the Chinese government, ASF will likely persist uncontrolled across China. Furthermore, this uncertainty about how ASF is circulating in China will prevent many hog farmers from restocking, extending the recovery process,” FAS reported.

Small farmers restocking

Despite knowing the severity of the situation, FAS said attempts at restocking have already begun, mostly by small farmers hoping to profit from rising prices. The majority of medium and large-scale producers are taking a wait-and-see approach to restocking.

This is a risky venture for the small farmers, FAS said, because ASF is still not controlled, and outbreaks continue to occur, even in provinces that have not reported ASF for many months. With an average profit of 200-400 renminbi (RMB) per head (roughly $30-60), however, FAS said many small farmers cannot pass up the opportunity.

In addition, per-head profits could even rise to 800-1,000 RMB per head ($120-150) in the latter part of 2019.

“Several industry experts have compared these small farmers to gamblers, hoping to strike it rich by avoiding ASF,” the report pointed out.

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