Officials at a New Jersey port have seized 1 million pounds of contraband Chinese pork amid fears of African swine fever contamination, Reuters reports.
Customs agents found the pork in more than 50 shipping containers arriving in Newark, New Jersey over the past few weeks, with the help of specially trained dogs. The products were concealed by laundry detergent and ramen noodle boxes and officials plan to incinerate them. A USDA spokesperson says the agency does not plan to test the seized product for African swine fever.
This represents the largest-ever seizure of agricultural goods in United States history, and its scale seems to signal that authorities are taking the virus’s threat very, very seriously. The disease has never been detected in domestic meat or live animals. While it does not affect humans, African swine fever is highly contagious among pigs and can be spread between animals through contaminated feed and carried from farm to farm on clothing and shoes. It could hypothetically even survive a plane flight from Beijing to Kansas City on the bottom of a passenger’s shoe. It is almost always fatal, and there is no treatment or vaccine.
Though Friday’s seizure may seem like an overabundance of caution, there’s a reason U.S. officials are being so aggressive in keeping untested pork imports out of the food supply. African swine fever has had a massive impact on China’s hog supply in a very short time. It was first identified in the Shenyang province in August of 2018, and it spread to seven other provinces in just two months, according to a USDA report. Since then, China has reported 115 outbreaks to the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) and culled about 1 million animals. That’s still a relatively small number. The country slaughtered 700 million pigs in 2017.
But USDA believes these numbers are vastly underreported: its semi-annual livestock report mentions Chinese media reports of outbreaks that never make it into the country’s official numbers, social media posts alleging the same, and one particularly egregious instance in which a hog manager was arrested for reporting an outbreak to the national government. It also mentions that American hog industry professionals have privately expressed concerns about carrying the virus back to this country after trips to hog conferences and trade shows in China.
The USDA expects that African swine fever outbreaks will hasten consolidation in the Chinese hog farming industry. Large-scale growers are better at controlling the environment around their farms, the logic goes, so the big guys will stave off the disease that knocks out family farmers. Early data for 2019 seems to contradict that prediction, however. In January and February, 80 percent of total outbreaks occurred at farms with more than 1,000 animals.
In mid-February, cases of African swine fever were confirmed on three farms in Vietnam. The virus has since spread to a total of 19 provinces with 239 confirmed outbreaks, Reuters reports. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) has advised the country to declare a national emergency. In the first half of March, the fever was also confirmed in Romania, Ukraine, Belgium, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Russia, and Mongolia.