We’re very, very worried’: Canada’s ‘unprecedented’ campaign to keep out African Swine Fever, from sniffer dogs to sausage bans

Hundreds of citations and fines — of up to $1,300 — have been levied in the last year to travelers with undeclared east Asian swine products.


Updated: January 3, 2020

At an unnamed Canadian port recently, border guards thwarted an attempt to smuggle Chinese pork products into the country by claiming the wholesale shipment was something else entirely. Had the ruse proven successful, it could have had calamitous results. China’s hog population has been decimated by African Swine Fever, and even a single case of it appearing in a pig here could hobble a $4-billion-a-year export industry.

That danger has spawned an “unprecedented” effort to keep the virus out, with newly trained sniffer dogs checking air passengers for hidden sausages, feed shipments subjected to heat treatment and vigilance for surreptitious imports of tainted pork. Hundreds of citations and fines — of up to $1,300 — have been levied in the last year to travelers with undeclared east Asian swine products.

As attention has focused on China’s decision to temporarily bar Canadian pork imports last year, this country has been quietly fighting to protect itself from infection coming the other way. This is really unprecedented “We’re very, very worried. It’s a huge threat to the pig population, pig production,” Jaspinder Komal, chief veterinary officer with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said in an interview. “We have accelerated our effort in raising awareness and preparing ourselves and putting plans in place…

This is really unprecedented.” The defence is occurring at the farm level, too, with producers prohibiting casual visitors, requiring visiting trucks to be disinfected and in some cases even barring pork from farm hands’ lunch boxes. An outbreak would be devastating not only to farmers but to hundreds of thousands of Canadians in associated businesses, said Rick Bergmann, chair of the Canadian Pork Council. Canada exports 70% of its pork and much of that commerce could come to a halt under the spectre of ASF, he said.

Canada recently struck deals with the U.S. and the E.U. to allow trade from unaffected zones of a country in the event of an infection elsewhere. Still, dealing with a case or cases here, cleaning up from it and rebuilding hog populations could deliver a $50-billion hit to the economy, said Bergmann. “It’s on our minds constantly,” he said. “It’s a major, major concern, and that’s why we put so much effort into prevention.”

African Swine Fever showed up in Eastern Europe in the 2000s and more recently spread into east Asia. Though harmless in humans, it is invariably fatal to pigs. China has been hardest hit, with 40% of its hogs — the world’s largest population — either dying from ASF or having to be culled.

In all, the virus is expected to claim a quarter of the planet’s swine, the World Organization of Animal Health said last October. Denmark even built a fence along one border to keep out infected pigs. ASF is a particularly sturdy bug, able to survive heat and cold to a certain degree so germs on clothes or footwear or in even cooked or prepared meats could transmit the infection to a pig here, said Komal.

That’s why a major focus has been people traveling back from affected areas. The federal government provided funding to add an extra 24 detector-dog teams trained to sniff out food and plants at Canadian airports. Six of those are already in action, bringing the current total of canine plant-and-food sniffers to 21, says Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokeswoman Judith Gadbois St-Cyr.

Whenever a flight comes in from an ASF-affected country, CBSA deploys the dogs to screen passengers and their luggage, said Komal. It seems they have been finding a lot of pig contraband. The number of administrative penalties — which can include a fine of up to $1,300 — for undeclared food that includes pork products rose from 549 in 2018 to 731 last year, said Gadbois St-Cyr.

Most of those people were simply unaware of the threat, said Komal, but there have been attempts to bring in shipments surreptitiously. U.S. Customs seized a one-million-pound cargo of pork and tea bags and noodles used to hide the pork in March. The CBSA intercepted a smaller load recently, said Komal. “A shipment of pork products came in misidentified as something different than pork products, but our inspectors are pretty vigilant and they caught it,” he said.

Meanwhile, imports of soy, corn and other pig-feed ingredients from affected countries must be heat treated, which can mean holding them in a container at 20 degrees for 20 days, said Komal. Individual farmers are also being urged to bolster “bio-security.”

At his operation southeast of Winnipeg, Bergmann keeps his barns locked, bars visitors not authorized in advance, and requires feed and other trucks to be disinfected before coming on to the property. Workers cannot bring anything pork-related for lunch from outside — despite Bergman’s natural inclination to promote the meat.

Another concern is Canada’s large population of wild boar, also susceptible to the virus and, obviously, much harder to control. Bergmann said he would ideally like to see fences erected around all pig farms to shield against the animals’ untamed cousins. The growing number of people who have pigs as pets are also a possible disease source, especially if the owners travel to Asia and bring back contaminated food, said Komal. “One bad sausage fed to a wild pig or a domestic pig can cause infection and stop our trade,” he said. “And this will have a huge economic impact.”

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