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USDA taking precautions against African swine fever

Measures in place to protect U.S. producers from spread of ASF, according to top agricultural leaders.

African swine fever (ASF) has been on the mind of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue every day of every week since the resurgence of the disease swept China, he shared at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum. With recent news that ASF has spread to Vietnam, Perdue continues to regularly ask his team about the techniques and protocols in place to guard U.S. borders.

As undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory affairs overseeing the efforts, Greg Ibach said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is busy on many fronts to protect the nation’s livestock industry not only from ASF but also classical swine fever and other similar diseases occurring around the world.

Ibach said USDA continues to work closely with the pork industry. “They have fears and concerns. We want to be aware of what those fears and concerns are, and we want to have a good science-based discussion on whether these are things we should be worried about,” he said, adding that it’s also important to see if additional protocols should be put in place to safeguard against disease entry.

Ibach said the agency is reaching out to the U.S. Customs & Border Protection to inform those on the front lines which countries pose concerns. The epidemiology for ASF and classical swine fever is much the same as foot and mouth disease, which offers a blueprint for how to protect against disease entry domestically since it has been kept out of the U.S. successfully for more than 100 years.

“If you have confidence in what we’ve done in the past in border protection, we’re upping the ante and asking for more surveillance from Customs & Border Protection. We’re using more dogs at the ports of entry for people who are moving, and we’re also talking to producers about biosecurity on the farms,” Ibach said.

Jack Shere, deputy administrator of veterinary services and chief veterinarian at USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, told attendees at the outlook forum on Feb. 22 that ASF is a difficult virus to get rid of and moves in uncured and uncooked meat. “Most of the movement we’ve seen historically has been done by people,” Shere noted. It has an incubation period of 5-21 days, and sometimes, there are no clinical signs of the virus.

Shere added that economists estimate that if ASF was to hit the U.S., it would cost the domestic pork industry $4 billion a year, as pork exports -- which currently comprise nearly one-fourth of total domestic pork production -- would come to a screeching halt. When you account for the additional impact on other commodities that serve the pork industry, you can see how the economic costs multiply.

Perdue, while speaking with Canada's Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay, said the North American nations, including Mexico, are working together in their efforts to prevent the entry of ASF to North America. Perdue likened it to a “neighborhood watch” that's designing a program to watch out for each other and establish protocols and standards of protection that all can agree upon.

“By defining protocols, our customers would know that they would be safe from us spreading those kinds of things,” Perdue said, explaining that the tremendous economic issues of sharing the long borders on the north and south make it important to “function together as one.”

MacAulay said he fully understands the devastation if hog exports are shut off. “I would like to sit down and put something together to deal with this issue not after it comes but before it comes,” he said. He related it to how nations deal with bovine tuberculosis whereby, if it is isolated and properly contained, exports can continue.

Perdue said the ongoing mobile nature of the world only increases the likelihood of things transferring from one nation to another. “We are committing even further to up our game in the neighborhood watch,” he said.

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