Easing public worry on ASF
The African swine fever (ASF) virus does not pose a health risk to people who consume pork. That important point needs to be reiterated, as the Department of Health has done so many times, because the unnecessary panic that has gripped the public over the last few months is adversely affecting the local swine sector. The country’s hog-raising industry, which is valued at P200 billion, has been losing P1 billion, or about $20 million a month, since the Department of Agriculture confirmed the first ASF outbreak on July 25.
More than 62,000 pigs have died due to the disease or been culled since the outbreak, as the infection has spread to Rizal, Bulacan, Pampanga, Pangasinan, Nueva Ecija and Cavite provinces, and Quezon City in Metro Manila, according to the Oct. 24 ASF bulletin of the Food and Agriculture Organization. That body blow to the industry was compounded by news last week that processed meat products such as hot dog, longganisa and tocino seized at a Mindoro port tested positive for the disease.
Agriculture Secretary William Dar has ordered the strict implementation of the 1-7-10 protocol: culling all hogs within a 1-kilometer radius of the affected areas, while limiting the movement of pork and pork products within 7 km, and conducting surveillance and monitoring within a 10-km radius. To further contain the outbreak, the government has also appealed to hog raisers and traders to stop the sale of ASF-infected pigs and processed products, and has urged the public to buy only from market vendors and meat shops with National Meat Inspection Services certificates. While pork with ASF poses no health threat to consumers, food remains containing such, when fed to hogs, may infect the entire pig population in a farm, devastating livelihoods and businesses.
The Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. (Pampi), meanwhile, has declared that it will stop the purchase of local pork to contain the spread of ASF, until local hog producers can assure the government that their products have not been infected. The move has been met with criticism; Magsasaka Rep. Argel Cabatbat called it a “misguided” move that will further hurt the already bleeding industry, especially backyard raisers and other small players. The Samahan ng Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) countered Pampi’s statement by calling it an empty threat, since “they never bought from us in the first place” and instead allegedly imports 95 percent of their pork.
In fact, what should be stopped, according to Sinag chair Rosendo So, is the importation of pork—which he said was the source of the swine disease in the country in the first place—until the government has established the quarantine first policy, or a strip inspection at the port of first entry. “The original sin of the ASF [outbreak] are pork imports, the very raw material of this processors’ group,” So said. ASF was first reported in Liaoning province, China, in August 2018, and has now spread to at least 10 countries across Asia.
In the Philippines, the world’s seventh biggest pork importer as well as the 10th biggest pork consumer, demand for pork has gone down by about 30 percent in Luzon, while the impact has been lesser in Visayas and Mindanao where no ASF cases have been reported so far. The outbreak, coupled with high prices of pork (between P200 and P240 in retail, despite low farm-gate prices of between P90 and P100, resulting in a loss for hog farmers) has forced consumers to turn to other alternatives like chicken as their protein source. Yet concerns have been raised, too, whether there will be enough supply of pork by December, which is peak season for pork products like lechon (suckling pig) and ham, and even for the long weekend of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, when families gather to honor their dead.
Perhaps the news that no new cases of ASF have been reported for more than a week now should help allay public worry. The most recently detected cases, in Cavite and Nueva Ecija, were more than two weeks ago—a development that local hog raisers consider “good news.” Still, the industry and concerned government agencies have their work cut out for them to rebuild consumer confidence that pork is safe to eat—that the ASF virus cannot be transmitted to humans, and hence this is not a human-health or food-safety issue. Sustained monitoring and greater transparency on the part of all stakeholders in this crisis should help ease the public’s fear and anxiety.
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