Could a deadly pig virus transform Germany’s fixation on 'cheap meat'?

African swine fever and Covid outbreaks among workers have raised questions over mega farms for pork


Kate Connolly, The Guardian (UK)

7 Jan 2021


It was the stench of the wild boar’s carcass that first caught the rambler’s attention. Bits of hide and a few bones were all that was left of the animal, found in September on the edge of a maize field in the north-east state of Brandenburg, which encircles Berlin.


Tests quickly showed that it had died from African swine fever, or ASF. It was found 20km from the last known outbreak in neighbouring Poland.


“It was hardly a surprise,” says Petra Senger, the official vet for the administrative region of Oder-Spree, who ordered the tests. “We had been expecting it for a long time.”


Since the discovery of the first ASF case in Germany, state authorities have erected kilometres of metal fencing, informed farmers, enrolled sniffer dogs, equipped hunters with night-vision equipment, paid them for each cadaver shot and asked walkers to be on the alert.


The effects for many farmers are devastating. Where an infected cadaver is found, no harvesting or hunting is allowed within a radius of at least 15km. No pigs or pork can leave the area. Large areas of crops have had to be destroyed to avoid them entering the food chain in case they are infected.


The number of officially registered cases of ASF in Germany has now reached more than 300. So far the disease – not harmful to other animals but devastating to pigs – has only been found in wild animals. Farm pigs have so far not been affected. But agricultural experts worry that it is only a matter of time.


African swine fever is believed to have reached Europe in 2007, when it was found in meat on a rubbish dump in Georgia, which had arrived from Africa by ship. Since then the disease has spread, from Georgia to Russia, from Russia to Ukraine, then to Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Korea, China and Papua New Guinea.


It surprised health authorities and veterinary controllers in Germany that Europe’s biggest economy, which counts alongside the US and Spain as one of the world’s biggest pork exporters, had remained unscathed for so long.


Pig farmers are now feeling the pressure over a blanket ban by China and other Asian countries on the import of German pork. More than a quarter of pork exports in the first six months of 2020 – valued at €2.4bn (£2.1bn) – went to China, according to Germany’s statistics office, double the amount for the whole of last year.


The reason for the massive increase was China’s own battle with ASF. The world’s biggest pork producer and consumer had to slaughter around 200 million pigs last year as the disease spread across the country.


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