Opinion: African swine fever has clear and present dangers

Dawson BradfordCountryman
Quarantine officials wearing protective gears place barricades as a precaution against African swine fever at a pig farm in Paju, South Korea.
Camera IconQuarantine officials wearing protective gears place barricades as a precaution against African swine fever at a pig farm in Paju, South Korea. Credit: AP / Ahn Young-Joon

African swine fever is the biggest biosecurity threat Australia has faced for many years.

There is no vaccination or cure for the virus and it has an almost 100 per cent fatality rate for the pigs it infects.

Already 25 per cent of the world’s pig population has been wiped out by ASF.

With confirmation this month the virus had been detected in pigs in East Timor, which is only about 700km from Australia, it is too close for comfort.

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Importantly there is no threat to human health or food safety from ASF. The disease is, however, highly contagious to pigs.

The virus can be transferred through clothes, shoes, water, feed, faeces, semen, urine, vehicles, knives, biting flies and ticks, from pork products being fed to pigs and spread by vermin and birds.

It can remain viable in cooked and frozen meat for long periods.

So far, the contagion has rapidly spread to about 50 countries.

The World Organisation for Animal Health considers ASF to be a trade limiting foreign animal disease, and countries with confirmed cases are subject to international trade restrictions.

An outbreak in Australia would ravage the local herd and industry but the impact would be felt well beyond pork producers.

The worldwide shortage of pork already being experienced, including an estimated 10 million tonne shortage in China, means consumers are seeking alternative proteins which will drive prices up here at home.

What of our clean, green, disease-free image so prized by Australian producers in accessing and retaining markets?

We have always known that one false move could be disastrous to our reputation.

The gap left by pork production in our northern neighbours will result in more cattle and sheep being imported from countries with less stringent biosecurity and there is a risk this will bring other virulent livestock diseases closer to home.

The good thing is that the risk of ASF reaching Australia has heightened industry and government vigilance.

Passengers and parcels arriving from ASF-affected countries are scrutinised more. About 27 tonnes of pork products have been confiscated at Australian airports, some of which has tested positive for the ASF genome.

Efforts are being made to inform overseas students and migration agents about the risks and passengers are being intercepted at regional transit hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Enforcement and penalties have been increased.

On-farm biosecurity has stepped up and communication about the risk of swill feeding has increased, but are we doing enough and what more can we do? Here are a few suggestions.

— The proposed biosecurity levy of $10.02 per six-metre container and $1 a tonne for non-containerised cargo to improve exotic pest and disease detection should not be delayed any longer.

This will benefit all agricultural industries and two delays already are two too many when ASF is on our doorstep. Implementation is urgent.

WA Pork Producers Association president Dawson Bradford.
Camera IconWA Pork Producers Association president Dawson Bradford. Credit: Danella Bevis

— WA’s isolation from the remainder of the country may be an advantage if there is an outbreak in another State.

Negotiations with key trading partners should begin as a priority to agree on a geographical biosecurity zoning approach or to compartmentalise WA or other areas of Australia that demonstrate freedom from the disease and allow trade to continue.

— Feral pigs have been a major source of infection in Europe.

If ASF took hold in our feral pig population it would be very hard to eradicate.

We must get tougher on this problem — implement wild pig control programs and take swift action against those people who take risks with our biosecurity by not disposing of feral pigs properly and who transport live or slaughtered pigs inappropriately.

— We need to run a communication campaign for people in high-risk pathways that don’t receive messages through normal channels.

People such as international students whose parents sometimes send pork products through the mail; hunters who may not recognise the signs of disease in feral pig populations, picnickers that innocently throw a ham sandwich into the bush only to be consumed by a feral pig and small backyard owners who may not know that swill feeding is illegal and high-risk.

— Vehicles also risk transferring the disease. More resources should go into an effective and reliable truck wash infrastructure in WA not only because of ASF. Truck washes are a necessary biosecurity measure for all agricultural industries.

— Ongoing support for detector dogs at entry points is important and all passengers arriving from countries with confirmed ASF should be required to walk through a foot wash.

— Complacency is our biggest enemy, next to the disease itself.

We are treading a fine line between our natural inclination not to be alarmist and making sure our population is aware of the risk.

Our clean, green image and strong biosecurity is a great asset for Australian agriculture. It is vitally important the wider community takes the threat seriously and are well informed.

Dawson Bradford is a WA Pork Producers Association president and pig farmer at Popanyinning.

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