HONG KONG — A man in a white protective suit parked a dump truck at the edge of a dusty pit and unloaded a pile of pink carcasses. They tumbled to the ground just as a second truck arrived with another batch.
The scene at a Hong Kong landfill this week was part of a government effort to kill and dispose of 6,000 pigs from a slaughterhouse where one of the animals had been found to have African swine fever.
It was the latest turn in an outbreak that has decimated pig herds in the Chinese mainland and rapidly spread elsewhere in Asia in recent months, and which experts say shows no sign of stopping — particularly since containing the disease is a challenge in a region where many producers are small-scale farmers.
And because China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork, the mainland government’s move to cull more than a million pigs is now being felt across a sprawling global industry that includes truckers, pork dealers and soybean feed farmers.
“The ripples of it will be felt everywhere,” Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at the City University of Hong Kong who studies the disease, said of the African swine fever outbreak.
The highly contagious virus, which affects pigs but not humans, has been around for years. But the current outbreak affects a region where pork is often the primary staple of local diets.
[A vicious, untreatable killer leaves China guessing.]
The current outbreak was first reported in mainland China in August. Since then, the virus has spread to pig herds in every mainland Chinese province, as well as to Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia. Vietnam, one of the world’s largest pork producers, has culled nearly 90,000 pigs since February, according to figures published last week by the United Nations food agency. The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, recently called for “drastic measures” to stop the virus from spreading and even enlisted the military in the effort.
The current outbreak was first reported in mainland China in August. Since then, the virus has spread to pig herds in every mainland Chinese province, as well as to Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia.
Vietnam, one of the world’s largest pork producers, has culled nearly 90,000 pigs since February, according to figures published last week by the United Nations food agency. The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, recently called for “drastic measures” to stop the virus from spreading and even enlisted the military in the effort.
“We should combat the epidemic as if we are fighting against the enemy,” Mr. Phuc was quoted as saying in March by the country’s state-run news media.
Professor Pfeiffer said that while the spread of the disease into Vietnam was worrying, his primary concern was how the Chinese authorities were handling the outbreak because the scale of that country’s pork industry makes it the “Himalayas of pigs.”
About 700 million hogs were slaughtered in China last year, far more than in any other country. Analysts at Rabobank, a Dutch lender, predicted last month that China’s total would fall by about 150 million to 200 million this year because of deaths from infection or culling.
China’s tendency to hush up disease outbreaks has engendered widespread public distrust, and many farmers and livestock analysts say they assume the disease has infected more pigs, in more places, than officials have publicly acknowledged.
Chinese companies are now rolling out facial and voice recognition software on pig farms and other unproven ways to save the animals from disease. The government has also bought frozen pork to build up its strategic reserve.
Meanwhile, more than a billion pork lovers in China and neighboring countries are facing tightening supplies. In April, a global meat price index rose by 3 percent compared with a month earlier, as demand for imported pork surged in Asia, particularly China, the United Nations food agency reported.
Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory, confirmed its first case of African swine fever last week at the Sheung Shui Slaughterhouse, which gets its pigs from the Chinese mainland. Professor Pfeiffer said that the facility gets about 4,000 pigs a day from the Chinese mainland, and another 250 to 300 from local farmers.
The Hong Kong authorities promptly cut hog imports from the mainland and ordered the culling of all 6,000 of the Sheung Shui facility’s pigs. They also closed down another major slaughterhouse and warned of short-term pork shortages.
At the Chun Yuen Street wet market in Hong Kong on Tuesday, several meat vendors said that they had stopped selling pork in recent days — partly because of scarce supplies, but also because they feared selling it could expose them to liabilities.
That left one shopper, Wong Wai-lai, 57, wondering what to cook for dinner in place of her usual pork-rib soup.
“It seems like we have to opt for fish today,” she said while scanning a few specimens that were displayed on ice. “But it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Swine fever is no joke.”
Not everyone supported the government’s swift actions to contain the epidemic.
John Lau, a local pig farmer, said the closing of the second slaughterhouse was an overreach because it prevented farmers like him — none of whom have reported African swine fever infections in their hog herds — from making a living.
“There doesn’t need to be a huge shortage,” he said.
Professor Pfeiffer said that Hong Kong’s decision to cull 6,000 pigs had probably been an overreaction because many of the animals had not been sick. Still, he added, it was understandably difficult for governments in Asia and beyond to move away from their usual “sledgehammer” approach to outbreaks.
For example, Chinese officials have recently started giving farmers about $116 to $174 for every infected pig carcass they cull, he said. But even that can create the wrong kind of incentives.
“You either give too much and they want to have the disease,” he said, “or you give too little and they will not tell you they have the disease.”
A spokesman for the Hong Kong Food and Health Bureau said on Tuesday that no officials there were available to comment.
On social media, users in Hong Kong expressed shock about the culling operation and sympathy toward the slaughtered swine.
“Humans owe you all an apology,” one user wrote on Facebook, referring to pigs.
Elvis Chan, a vegetarian chef and food blogger, proposed what he said was a simple solution to the city’s pork crisis.
“More vegetarianism, less killing,” he wrote. “O.K.?”
Source link Health