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Billion dollar threat: Foreign pig disease could paralyze Minnesota economy

May 16, 2019 10:28 PM

A highly contagious animal disease that's devastated the pork industry in China also poses a huge threat to Minnesota's economy, according to industry experts, farmers and federal agents interviewed by 5 INVESTIGATES.

African swine fever (ASF) has spread throughout China, Africa and parts of Europe. It's easily transmitted by pigs, wild boars, pork products and even animal feed. ASF poses no danger to human health, but it's usually deadly for pigs within days of contracting the virus.

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Minnesota is the number two pork-producing state in the U.S., behind only Iowa. If just one case of ASF is detected in the United States, the Minnesota Pork Board estimates the state's economy could lose $1 billion annually until export markets are restored.


The information in the explainer below is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Click on each header to read more:

African swine fever (ASF) is highly contagious viral disease that can affect both domestic and wild pigs. It is found in countries worldwide, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. ASF does not affect humans.
There is neither a treatment nor a vaccination yet available for ASF.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working closely with other federal and state agencies, the swine industry, and producers to take action to protect pigs and keep this disease out of the U.S.
ASF is easy to spread; the virus can remain on clothing and equipment and can survive in pork products for months, according to the USDA. ASF can spread via these pathways:

  • Garbage feeding
  • Contaminated vehicles and equipment
  • Feral swine
  • Contaminated feed
  • Sick pigs
  • International travelers
  • Contaminated clothing and shoes
Pigs with ASF display the following symptoms, according to the USDA:

  • High fever
  • Weakness and a diminished appetite
  • Red, blotchy skin or skin lesions
  • Diarreah and vomiting
  • Coughing or difficulty breathing


High alert on the farm

"Twenty-six percent of our pork (is) exported; the market would crash," said Greg Boerboom, a third-generation pig farmer, about the prospect of African swine fever making it to the U.S.

Boerboom said his farm, Boerboom Ag Resources in Marshall, sends about 320,000 pigs to market every year.

They've kept a close eye on the crisis in China. Since the first appearance of ASF in that country last summer, farmers there have been forced to destroy at least a million pigs and experts estimate the actual losses in China could be much higher.

Boerboom granted 5 INVESTIGATES access to one of his barns where the standard "bio-security protocol" includes a massive two-stage air filter and an ultra-violet light chamber through which all equipment must pass before coming inside. All visitors are required to shower and change into sterile clothing.

A poster with warnings about ASF is posted near the employee break room.

Boerboom is also president of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association's executive board. He said ASF was the "number one" topic of concern at recent conferences in the U.S. and Canada. He and others warn it would not take much for the disease to make it to the U.S.

"It could be a very simple mistake," Boerboom said. "It can be as simple as somebody traveling back from a foreign country and didn't eat their whole lunch and have a ham sandwich tucked in their backpack."

Professor John Deen is a veterinarian at the University of Minnesota, specializing in pigs and the spread of diseases. Unlike many diseases, which require direct contact between pigs to spread, Deen said ASF can last for months in a variety of products.

"It contaminates pork, it contaminates manure or dirt and sticks to your feet," Deen said. "We have to worry not only about what is found, but we have to imagine what may slip through."

The beagle brigade

Catching any products that might be carrying ASF is the responsibility of agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

CBP brought 5 INVESTIGATES inside a secure area at MSP where eight agricultural specialists check travelers coming into Minnesota from abroad.

Agents also rely on two beagles – Scarlett and Burnie – to sniff out items that aren't allowed in the U.S.

The dogs make about 3,000 "interceptions" of banned agricultural products a year, according to Tim Lauth, CBP's chief ag specialist for the region. The USDA recently increased the "Beagle Brigade" to 179 teams at U.S. ports of entry across the country, but Lauth acknowledged they might not be able to catch everything.  

"We can't do it alone," Lauth said. "We need the public's help on this."

Lauth showed 5 INVESTIGATES raw pork that agents recently found in the luggage of travelers arriving at MSP. He said each discovery is an opportunity to educate.

"If I can get that one person who brought food in this time to understand the risk that that poses, well then all of his subsequent travels, he's going to be low-risk," Lauth said.

The potential risk was highlighted in March when CBP agents in New Jersey intercepted 1 million pounds of pork smuggled in shipping containers from China.

It's unknown whether any of those products carried the disease.

If ASF somehow slips across the U.S. border, Boerboom said he and his fellow farmers won't be the only ones who feel the impact.

"From trucking, processing of the meat, processing of the feed that the pigs eat—so, there's just a lot of jobs at stake beyond the producer," Boerboom said.

Preparing for the worst

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health said the state is one of 13 working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop nationwide policies in the event that ASF appears in the U.S.

In a document laying out prevention efforts, the board notes "prompt reporting, early detection, and immediate action are critical to a successful disease response."


The Minnesota Board of Animal Health released the following information about efforts to prevent ASF in the state:


A spokesman for the agency said stakeholders will participate in three ASF "response exercises" in September. A "tabletop exercise" to practice recently developed plans happened in April.

Organizers of the World Pork Expo decided to cancel their annual event scheduled for June in Des Moines, Iowa, out of concerns about ASF. They were expecting 20,000 visitors, including exhibitors from countries where the disease has already been detected.

Eric Rasmussen can be reached by email here.

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Eric Rasmussen

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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