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Episode 3 – How Canada is keeping its pigs safe: African swine fever

August 2021

How Canada is keeping its pigs safe: African swine fever

"We have about 7,500 operations across the country and thousands of farm families that contribute to the Canadian economy through swine production. It's critical that we have strong efforts and good plans in place to be able to prevent the risk of introduction of African swine fever into Canada."

Megan Bergman, Executive Director of the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council

"We are spending a lot of time and effort preparing for the possible occurrence of the disease. Industry, federal government partners, provincial partners are getting together around a table to collaborate on making plans and determining: what has priority, what should be done, who does what. Certainly from that aspect, we're doing things differently compared to what we did in the past."

Dr Martin Appelt, Senior director for Animal Health, Welfare and Traceability at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

African swine fever, a deadly disease that impacts only pigs, is spreading rapidly across the globe. Luckily, it has never been detected in Canada. In this episode, we hear about the unprecedented efforts being made to prevent this fatal animal disease from entering the country and to protect our $24 billion pork industry.

How Canada is keeping its pigs safe: African swine fever (ASF) – Audio Transcript

Co-host (Michelle Strong): Imagine this. You're driving down a highway on a road trip with your friends. You're hungry, so you grab the sandwich you'd packed as a snack. You're excited because it's made with the fancy ham that your aunt sent you from overseas. You eat most of it, but wait, you just realized you didn't bring a garbage bag. So you throw your sandwich leftovers out the window. Whatever. It's biodegradable, right?

Co-host (Greg Rogers): A few weeks later, wild boars in the surrounding area start falling ill. Then, the same thing starts happening to pigs in the nearby farms. 95% of them die from this disease and it's spreading quickly to wider and wider areas. It's an epidemic.

Michelle: All because of your ham sandwich. Although not a true story, this is the reality of how devastating African swine fever can be.

Greg: I'm Greg.

Michelle: And I'm Michelle. And this is Inspect and Protect, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's podcast.

Greg: For the past 2 years, the world has been focused on COVID-19. However, another contagious and fatal disease has been spreading rapidly across continents. It's called African swine fever. It is recognized as 1 of the major threats to pig production, food security and biodiversity in the world.

Michelle: This disease is not a food safety risk, so it can't be transmitted to humans. Pigs who do become infected, however, have gruesome odds with a 95% mortality rate. That means most of them die if they get it. So where did it come from?

It was first discovered in Africa in 1907 and was relatively stable for a century. There had been outbreaks in Europe and in the Caribbean, but nothing like what erupted in 2018 when an outbreak was discovered in China. It quickly spread to other countries in Asia and in Europe.

So far, the disease has never been detected in Canada. If an outbreak were to occur, it could devastate Canada's pig population and pork industry. To protect the pigs and producers across the country, there has been unprecedented efforts to both prevent the disease from crossing the country's borders and to plan a response if it were to be discovered.

Guest (Megan Bergman): We certainly have a strong swine industry here in Canada, and so we have about 7,500 swine operations across the country, which totals about 14 million pigs in total. So it's a big number. And I think the swine industry is really critical to the Canadian economy, but also to Canada as a whole.

Michelle: That's Megan Bergman, Executive Director of the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council. She's also a veterinarian and was the Provincial Chief Veterinary Officer for Manitoba from 2014 to 2018.

Megan: I think we need to recognize that we have thousands of farm families that contribute to the Canadian economy through swine production. Those provide jobs to not only those farm families, but through the value chain on farms and all the way through to the processing industry, and also provide a really important source of protein to Canadians. So I think it's critical that we have strong efforts and good plans in place to be able to prevent the risk of introduction of ASF into Canada.

Michelle: What happens if ASF were to be found in Canada?

Megan: So initially the whole country will be shut down for pork exports until we have a strong handle on where that disease is and ensure that it hasn't spread. And I know the Agency is working very closely with trading partners to work on being able to establish things such as zoning agreements, which would ideally enable us to resume trade more quickly.

Guest (Martin Appelt): A lot of effort goes into keeping it out, and part of that is also negotiating with trading partners ahead of time.

Greg: That's Martin Appelt, Senior Director for Animal Health, Welfare and Traceability at the CFIA. Martin is also a veterinarian and has been an expert witness in many animal welfare criminal court proceedings.

Martin: What we would do in case of an outbreak? Make zoning arrangements. A zone is a geographical description of an area in Canada where, should the disease occur, we could reasonably restrict this disease to this geographical area. So what that means for trade is that this particular zone cannot trade, but the other parts of Canada can. So, yes, our industry would take a hit, but not as big as if all of Canada was shut out from international trade for months and months, or even years.

The other piece connected to that is traceability. Traceability of our animals and especially amongst livestock, because clearly, once we detect an infected pig, it becomes crucial to determine as quickly as we can: Where did the particular pig come from? Where has it been? Which other pigs were in contact with it? So that we can lock down the right farms and premises and prevent further spread.

Greg: In terms of traceability, how would that be affected by things like animals or wild boars? Do we have a lot of wild boars in Canada?

Martin: We definitely do. They're not native to Canada. They're actually an invasive species and they were brought over for the most part from Europe for a variety of reasons. So wild boar as a farmed species was considered for a while and some of them just made it into the wild, and they formed fairly stable herds that are roaming the countryside in some parts of Canada: Saskatchewan, Alberta, to a certain extent, a little bit of Ontario. And they could serve as a reservoir should the disease enter Canada and grab a foothold amongst wild pigs. And because they're wild, we don't really know where they are. And it would make it potentially very difficult and costly to eradicate this disease.

Greg: Wow, I can imagine. So, Megan, can you explain in a nutshell, the essential prevention actions that are being taken right now?

Megan: Sure. I mean, I think there's been a lot of work done both on the government and industry side and the extensive campaign that's been developed with airports and with the Canada Border Services Agency, whether it be tools for communication. When you walk into Canada, you get a red flag that says "please be aware that African swine fever is a risk and you shouldn't be importing meat". In addition to that, we've got our detector dogs who can really identify 1 of our, I would say, high risk sources of introduction for a pork product that might be infected coming into Canada. But we've also got our producers who have established strong biosecurity protocols. So if we get unlucky and somebody brings something into Canada that is carrying ASF, biosecurity protocols should be in place and be able to prevent that introduction into our swine herds. But that doesn't protect the wild boar population, as Martin mentioned, and certainly the wild pig or the pet pig population. So having owners aware of what their potential risk could be if they're traveling and bringing home some meat to their home. If they have a pet pig, there's just as much risk for them as there is for a producer. And then, I think the other component is the really innovative approaches that have been undertaken with respect to feed importation. We have developed some tools that helps us to ensure that feed and feed ingredients that might be coming from ASF positive countries are not carrying ASF with them when they come into Canada. So it's really a beneficial partnership that's been put in place amongst all of our industry and government partners to collaborate on where there's new innovative opportunities to be able to prevent that introduction.

Michelle: Go, biosecurity, go.

Megan: That's right. 1 thing I also wanted to mention is it's important for us to recognize that we are looking for ASF. We have initiated a surveillance plan, which is allowing us to undertake some diagnostic testing through collaboration and partnership between our provincial and federal laboratories, as well as with our veterinarians that are in practice so that we can detect any potential introductions early. And early detection is going to be a very important measure to prevent the further transmission within Canada.

Greg: From what I understand, Canada's efforts against African swine fever are unparalleled in terms of the response to the disease, both here at home and across the globe. What's so different or unique about the disease response here in Canada?

Martin: First of all, we are spending a lot of time and effort preparing for the possible occurrence of the disease. So being ahead of the ball, you know, puts us in a good position. And I think the second aspect here is how we go about it. Our predecessors, that wrote laws 50-60 years ago, envisioned the world where the federal government was in charge, in the command and control manner and basically would protect people from themselves and tell them what was best for them. And times have dramatically changed - not always reflected in a regulatory framework. But the Agency has certainly broken the new path in the preparation for ASF and put in place, for example, the Executive Management Board for African swine fever, where industry, federal government partners, provincial partners get together around a table and collaborate on making plans and determining "what has priority?", "what should be done?", "who does what?". Certainly from that aspect, we're doing things differently compared to what we did in the past.

Michelle: If African swine fever has been around for a while, why the sudden trigger to focus on this disease and focus on this new approach?

Megan: I think there was a recognition that we were seeing an increasing number of cases, particularly even with trading partners internationally. And recognizing that we have potential sources or risks of introduction, whether it be through international travel, whether it be through feed ingredients that may be coming from or through a country that has been infected with ASF and also seeing some of our partners, such as Germany, kind of working through how you manage the potential introduction and response. So we recognize that we are not immune, that we do have potential risk pathways for this disease to come into Canada. And we needed to make sure we had a solid plan in place so that we could be quick and responsive and mitigate the impacts on Canada as much as possible should the worst case scenario occur.

Greg: My understanding is there's no cure or vaccine for the disease right now, but is anybody working on one? I imagine it would be very popular given the seriousness of the disease.

Martin: That is a very interesting discussion in itself. And I think people in general have gotten a bit of flavor of that with what happened in COVID. But, yes, there certainly is research underway to develop a vaccine. Whatever vaccine comes out will have to be highly effective and really well tested, similar to what we saw in COVID.

Greg: What are some of the signs and symptoms for ASF in pigs, like what should people do if they suspect their pig has African swine fever?

Martin: Well, first of all, unfortunately, the pig will not hold up a sign that says I have African swine fever.

Michelle: [laughs]

Greg: That would be too easy.

Martin: A lot of the symptoms of African swine fever are not very specific for that particular disease. You would expect a pig to have fever, maybe lose its appetite, be weak. We might see some skin reddening and vomiting, diarrhea. But those are all symptoms that also occur with other diseases. It's not necessarily a hallmark of African swine fever. It's not an easy situation for any pig producer to be in. And all I can say is be vigilant and consider the possibility that what you are seeing is more than what it lets on to be at this very moment. And work with your veterinarian to make sure you have a good protocol in place for sampling and testing just so a disease like African swine fever can be ruled out as quickly as possible.

You mentioned earlier, you know, that 95% of the pigs infected might die, and that is true…eventually. Unfortunately, it takes up to 2 weeks between a pig becoming infected with the virus to the pig actually showing very strong clinical signs. So you might you might already be 2 weeks behind the curve by the time you notice that there is something wrong. Right. That's 1 aspect that I cannot emphasize enough. So, by the time you see something, you definitely need to be proactive.

Greg: It's been super interesting to learn how extensive our efforts are and collaborations have been to date on this terrifying disease. Megan and Martin, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here today.

Megan: Thanks so much for having us today. It was great to have an opportunity to share the work that we're doing on ASF preparedness and prevention in Canada, and hopefully we'll never need to use the work that we're undertaking right now.

Martin: Yes, thank you for allowing me to be part of the podcast today. It was very enjoyable and hopefully some of the information comes in handy.

Michelle: Thanks so much for chatting with us.

Everyone can play a part to keep African swine fever out of Canada. So if you're travelling abroad, report all pork products you may be carrying. The disease can persist in meat and could spread to wild or domestic pigs very easily. And it could cost you a hefty $1,300. Oh, and remind your family overseas that they shouldn't be mailing you products that contain pork!

Greg: If you're a farmer or even someone who is just raising a few pigs, you probably know that it's against the law to feed pigs meat or meat by-products. Try and prevent any contact between your pigs and wild boars, including protecting your fields, pastures, feed and water sources from contamination.

And visitors or employees that have travelled internationally should wait at least 14 days before stepping back onto your farm. If you suspect a pig has African swine fever, report it to your vet as soon as possible.

Michelle: Canada is doing all it can to protect its pigs and its $24 billion pork industry. Prevention is key, but if it were to cross our borders, it's good to know that we're prepared.

This is Inspect and Protect. The CFIA's official podcast all about food safety and plant and animal health.

Greg: Visit us online at Inspection.canada.ca/inspect-and-protect-podcast.

[End of recording]

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