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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

As African Swine Fever plagues other countries, the U.S. works to keep it out

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Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media file photo
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The U.S. has put various protections in place to keep African Swine Fever out to protect the more than $8 billion pork industry.

A highly contagious pig disease has been found in the Caribbean. If African Swine Fever spreads to the Midwest, it could have a devastating impact on pork producers.

Al Wulfekuhle doesn’t take biosecurity lightly.

The pork producer showers before he goes into a barn and again as he leaves and asks the same of his employees. He even built a truck wash at his farm shop a year ago, so he doesn’t bring any possible pathogens back from the meat processing plants where he delivers his hogs.

“It’s to try to keep our pigs healthier,” Wulfekuhle said. “It’s a big investment, but it’s something we felt we needed to do.”

Wulfekuhle has 28,000 pigs spread out across 16 sites near Quasqueton in northeast Iowa. Biosecurity is top of mind for him and other pork producers after African Swine Fever, a highly contagious viral disease in pigs, was confirmed in Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the summer.

“It’s scary,” Wulfekuhle said. “It’s a huge risk to our industry.”

Iowa and Illinois are among the top five pork producing states in the U.S., an $8.1 billion industry with major exports to China, Japan and Mexico. If African Swine Fever reached the U.S. and spread to big pork-producing states like Iowa, “We’d be in a lot of trouble,” said Iowa State University economist Dermot Hayes.

“We’d lose almost all of those export markets overnight if we get this disease,” he said.

Hayes and other economists at Iowa State University predict African Swine Fever could generate massive losses for U.S. pork. Their study published in 2011 and updated in 2020 estimated the pork industry could lose $15 billion over two years and $50 billion over 10 years.

The worst-case scenario, Hayes said, would be if the disease gets into the feral hog population in the southern U.S. where it would be much harder to control.

“The challenge is to get rid of the disease as quickly as possible,” Hayes said.

The disease was first detected in the early 1900s in sub-Saharan Africa but has spread more widely in recent decades. There is no vaccine or cure.

With the detection of the disease in the Caribbean, the U.S. has strengthened border protections and no longer imports pork from Haiti or the Dominican Republic.

Jack Shere, an associate administrator with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said federal agencies have been keeping a close eye on the disease.

“Anything that we recover that’s pork-related from Haiti or from the Dominican Republic at the airports or from seaports, we confiscate that and we incinerate it,” he said.

The U.S. also monitors pork processing plants in Puerto Rico for the disease. So far, Shere said the measures are working, but he cautions that farmers in the U.S. can’t let their guard down.

“We always tell the farmers, ‘Biosecurity, biosecurity, biosecurity,’” he said.

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