Beijing issues rare public warning on swine fever crisis

Chinese authorities have announced strict new measures in an attempt to halt the country’s fast-growing African swine fever crisis, which has spread to 18 provinces and led to the culling of more than 200,000 pigs.

Days after acknowledging the situation was “serious,” the Chinese Agricultural Ministry on Friday reported the first outbreak of the disease in the southwestern province of Sichuan in a farm of 40 pigs.

The news is especially concerning for officials as Sichuan is the top swine-producing region in China — a country that produces half of the world’s pigs with a current population of around 500 million swine.

Although the disease poses no direct danger to human health, its arrival and spread in China have increasingly threatened the pork industry, with major potential impact on supplies and prices in coming months.

In a rare document jointly issued Wednesday by the Ministries of Agriculture, Transportation and Public Security, the government blamed unhygienic vehicles transporting pigs and profit-driven “lawless elements” moving animals out of high-risk areas for the disease’s rapid spread since the first case emerged in August.

The directive called for stricter nationwide inspections of all livestock transportation vehicles, and harsher punishments for the illegal transportation and slaughter of pigs.

The document comes after the United Nations recently warned that the disease is “here to stay” in China and could quickly turn into an epidemic, with the most virulent strain of swine fever causing a 100% fatality rate for infected pigs.

“What we’re seeing so far is just the tip of the iceberg,” Juan Lubroth, the chief veterinary officer at UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, said in September.

“Transboundary emergence of the virus, likely through movements of products containing infected pork, will almost certainly occur,” he added. “So it’s no longer ‘if’ that will happen but when, and what we can do collaboratively to prevent and minimize the damage.”

African swine fever, which has no vaccine or cure, was first detected in Asia last year, in an area in Siberia, according to the UN.

Chinese authorities in October banned the feeding of kitchen waste, or swill, to pigs after linking the widely used practice to most early cases of the disease. They also announced plans to set up a registration system for vehicles transporting livestock.

Despite the UN’s recognition of China’s efforts to contain the disease, some experts remain skeptical of Beijing’s ability to get it under control, pointing to the challenges of enforcing biosecurity on the country’s vast number of backyard pig farms.