African swine fever has been picked up in meat seized by port authorities in Northern Ireland, the first time the ASF virus has been detected in the UK.
Officials confiscated more than 300kg of illegal meat and dairy products from airport passengers’ luggage in June. Samples tested by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast confirmed traces of the virus, which is highly contagious and can survive for several months in processed meat.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the detection of “DNA fragments” of the virus does not pose a significant health threat to Northern Ireland’s animal health, nor does it change the country’s “disease-free status”.
But Zoe Davies of the National Pig Association said the discovery highlighted just how vulnerable the UK pig herd is to ASF infection.
“We have always maintained that the biggest threat to the UK pig herd is from infected meat products that are illegally brought in from infected regions that then find their way into the UK pig herd or feral boar population,” said Davies.
“There’s a possibility that it’s here already, perhaps in somebody’s fridge, because our checks on most of our borders right now are not very good. The risk is high – and it’s a big concern for us as an industry.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently announced that it would ramp up ASF controls at ports and airports, and launch a new poster campaign targeting travellers from ASF-affected regions, with warnings about bringing meat products into the country.
ASF is harmless to humans, although scientists have warned that physiological similarities between pigs and humans mean future mutations of the virus could become dangerous.
Nearly 6,000 ASF outbreaks are ongoing worldwide, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health. ASF can be transmitted through direct contact with infected animals and can also spread via insects such as ticks. The virus can live for several years in frozen carcasses, so meat products are a particular concern for cross-border transmission.
“If infected meat got past the authorities and into the pig herd in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else in the UK, it would have devastating implications,” said Alistair Driver, editor of Pig World.
“That is why there is such a big drive at the moment to step up controls and awareness of the risks at ports and airports, and to highlight to all pig keepers the dangers of feeding meat and any waste food to pigs, which is illegal under the swill-feeding ban.”
The disease has wreaked havoc since it broke out in China, which is home to the world’s largest pig herd. A third of the country’s pigs have been culled.
Its slow spread across Europe has also led to panic and anxiety. The disease was detected in Belgium last year, and the Danish government is now building a wall to prevent the disease entering their country via wild boar: the pig industry is a key component of their economy. Meanwhile, a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization says that ASF poses a “serious threat to food security”.
The National Pig Association has launched an industry-wide #MuckFreeTruck campaign to remind everyone across the supply chain and hauliers about the importance of ensuring trucks are clean and not carrying disease.
“We are also encouraging producers to put up clear signage on footpaths and other areas of public access close to pig units warning the public not to feed pigs,” said Davies.