Although African swine fever is not harmful to humans, it can kill up to 90 per cent of pigs that catch it, with infected animals hemorrhaging and dying within five to 15 days of contracting the disease.
The disease threatens to wipe out more than 200 million pigs in China alone by the end of the year.
Border officials have seized 27 tonnes of pork –100kg a week – in illegal pork products from travellers entering Australia since checks increased in November last year, and about 15 per cent have been found to be infected with swine fever.
Sniffer dogs have been dispatched to Darwin and border security increased to target flights from countries where the deadly African swine fever has spread.
But authorities fear the disease could enter Australia through the mail system, with thousands of international students unaware of the threats who are receiving packages of processed meats, such as pork jerky, from family or friends back home.
Swine fever: highly contagious, often fatal
- Swine fever is a highly contagious disease that can affect both domestic and wild pigs, and is usually fatal
- There is no treatment or vaccine
- The most likely sources of infection are pork products,porcine genetic material and other infected pigs
- Infection is spread from pig to pig by air particles from faeces, consumption of infected meat and insects
- Contaminated feed, water, clothing, footwear, vehicles,equipment, soil and wildlife can also spread the virus
Families who feed pet pigs table scraps, such as imported pork products, could also infect the domestic population, as the highly contagious virus is able to spread through material on vehicles and on piggery workers who have not been disinfected.
Federal Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie said there was increased screening of people and parcels coming in from affected nations.
“People are still disregarding our biosecurity laws,” she said. “We can send them home, we can slap significant fines on them and I’ll be encouraging our biosecurity officials to be doing exactly that with those offenders.”
Australia has about 2.5 million domestic pigs – a tiny number compared with China’s pre-outbreak population of 440 million – but Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Mark Schipp warned of a nightmare scenario if the nation’s 15 million feral pigs became infected.
Dr Schipp said the development of a vaccine was one of the highest priorities on the world stage, but so far African swine fever had proven a “very complex and large virus” to counter.
If the virus reached Australian pigs, Dr Schipp said pork export markets would shut down immediately.
“It would paint a very bleak picture for the Australian pork industry if even one farm became infected,” he said.
“In the event a farm in Australia became infected, we would slaughter out the entire farm, decontaminate and disinfect that property, so it would be out of business for some months.”
Australian Pork Limited chief executive Margo Andrae said the disease could take 20 million tonnes of pork off the world market and push up the price of all animal protein.
“Given there is insufficient production of pork in the world to fill the hole created by China’s production, we’d expect to see other meats also start to fill that gap,” Ms Andrae said.
She said China would begin importing more pork from overseas, but despite a free-trade agreement, Australia had been unsuccessful in negotiating export protocols.
“The opportunity for Australia is to gradually increase production and prices to fill gaps that other markets can’t supply,” she said.
She assured Australian consumers even a confirmed outbreak would not affect supply of Christmas hams in the coming months.
In Australia, 30 per cent of pork is processed as bacon and ham.
About 80 per cent of the domestic market is filled by imported pork, with the industry now looking to redouble its efforts to ensure consumers buy Australian-grown pork.
“We have an incredible clean and green image around the world which is envied,” Ms Andrae said. “That’s why protecting Australia from the awful disease is so important for the entire agricultural industry.”
Before 2007, African swine fever had been eliminated from most of the world.
The disease entered eastern Europe in 2007, likely spread from food waste fed to pigs, and within weeks 30,000 had died.
It reached China in 2018 and has since been detected in Mongolia, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar and now East Timor – nations with a combined total of 522 million pigs from an estimated global population of 770 million.
It also continues to spread in Europe, with Slovakia and Serbia also detecting the disease in recent months.
The disease can exist in frozen meat for up to two years and in blood-heavy products, such as black pudding, for six years.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra