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How China Can Save Its Pigs From Annihilation: Be Like Russia

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 12/7/2018 Lucca de Paoli and Anatoly Medetsky

Pigs at Lehmann Brothers Farms LLC in Strawn, Illinois.© Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Pigs at Lehmann Brothers Farms LLC in Strawn, Illinois.

For Chinese authorities struggling with the rapid spread of a disease that’s threatening to devastate the world’s largest pig industry, Russia’s No. 1 pork producer has the answer -- get bigger and cleaner or get out.

Miratorg, which raises 3 million pigs annually, not only has strict quarantine measures at every level of its farms, but it also bans workers from rearing their own hogs and from hunting wild boar. Such biosecurity measures have enabled it to thrive in the face of one of the world’s most dangerous swine diseases.

The disease-control measures are the key reason why Russian pork production is on track to double by 2019 from levels of 2007, when African swine fever began its march across the transcontinental nation. It’s evidence that the devastating virus -- which had more than 1,000 separate outbreaks in Russia and almost halved the number of small-scale piggeries -- can be managed.

a close up of a map: Life After Death?© Bloomberg Life After Death?

Now that a virtually identical strain of the contagion -- which typically kills pigs within a few days, but isn’t known to harm humans -- has spread across neighboring China, veterinary authorities are finding farms there may need to follow the same path as Miratorg.

Not Ready

“When the virus appeared in Russia, about half of our pork output came from household farms, and they weren’t ready to adapt,” said Yury Kovalev, head of the country’s National Pig Farmers Union. “Small farms began to die away. It was hard for them to have adequate protection.”

Meantime, highly industrialized pig farms increased production despite the epidemic, according to a letter published in April from scientists at Russia’s Federal Research Center for Virology and Microbiology. In China, control of the disease is being hindered by the millions of small pig farms and trading practices that involve shipping pigs from farm to farm over distances as great as 1,400 miles.

Read more on the deadly virus that’s killing Chinese pigs

“China is learning its own lessons,” said Matthew Stone, a deputy director general of the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris. “There is a clear understanding that farm biosecurity practices have been a challenge for them, and something they need to address.”

Nowhere in the world is the impetus greater. China pork industry is much larger than Russia’s. It’s home to half the planet’s pigs, which supply a $128 billion pork industry and are the dominant source of meat. Neighbors, including North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar also depend on pork.

Gaining Pace

African swine fever took hold in China four months ago and transmission has accelerated, with at least one fresh outbreak a day on average last month. It’s now encroached on major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Kunming. The fallout is also tempering China’s demand for soybean meal, Heather Jones, an analyst at Vertical Group, said in a report this week.

a close up of a map: Swift-Moving, Pig-Killing Virus© Bloomberg Swift-Moving, Pig-Killing Virus

If unchecked, the incurable disease, against which no vaccine exists, has the potential to devastate hog production, change food flows, and even harm economic growth. Pork may account for almost 3 percent of China’s consumer price index, a key measure of inflation.

In China, the farms most vulnerable to the virus appear to be smaller, backyard-type operations, said Justin Sherrard, the Utrecht-based global animal-protein strategist with Dutch bank Rabobank. The threat is likely better understood and mitigated against by the managers of larger-scale, more professional farms, he said.

“The main reason that you have African swine fever in China and Eastern Europe is that you have a lot of backyard farming in both parts of the world,” said Rick Janssen, president of the European Association of Porcine Health Management, a group of veterinarians specializing in swine health. “China must encourage farmers to notify the government when they have something wrong with those pigs. It needs to be sure that people are not hiding the infection.”

The World Organization for Animal Health’s Stone agrees that there’s an “opportunity for China to use the experience” of the disease in Europe, adding that his veterinary body is working with the United Nation’s Food and Animal Organization to share lessons learned.

‘Challenging Situation’

“This is a very challenging situation for China,” Stone said. Complicating efforts to achieve control are the distribution of the infection across both small- and large-scale farms, cases in wild boars, and virus-carrying pork products, which have been detected in the luggage of travelers from China to South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, he said.

a person and a dog on a luggage bag: America's Best Bet To Avoid A Deadly Pig Virus May Be Sniffer Beagles © Bloomberg America's Best Bet To Avoid A Deadly Pig Virus May Be Sniffer Beagles

A dog sniffs out banned food products on a carousel at O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

The virus can survive for a month in pepperoni and salami, for 140 days in Iberian cured pork products and for 399 days in Parma hams, scientists found. Pigs can become infected if they eat contaminated food scraps -- a practice prohibited in China, but which persists on some smaller farms.

Larger operations, like Miratorg, typically grow their own animal feed and carefully manage raw materials allowed on farms. Russia’s Miratorg has 28 pork-production facilities in the Kursk and Belgorod regions, according to its website.

Each facility is self-contained, with Miratorg’s herd, totaling 138,000 sows, supported by 3,800 specialist staff. Food safety, veterinary control and environmental compliance are given special attention, the company said.

“Producers learn from their own and someone else’s mistakes, and don’t cut corners on protection from the virus,” said Dmitry Sergeev, a spokesman for Miratorg. “We proceed from the principle that everything beyond the perimeter of the production site is unsafe.”

--With assistance from Megan Durisin.

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