African swine fever has landed on Australia's doorstep

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So far Australia has been able to watch African swine fever wreak havoc on pig farms accross Asia without any detection on our shores. The deadly fever has the potential to wipe out 25% of the pig pouolations of the world. 

The Guardian reported the disease was detected just 680km north of Darwin, in Timor-Leste. Australian biosecurity agencies which had been screening major airports and mail distributors for illegally imported pork products redoubled their efforts.

Because while Australia’s border control and quarantine methods are strict, experts say pork products sent in the mail pose a risk. For example, a care package containing a pork product – some jerky, a cured sausage – is sent from a country where the disease is present to an Australian friend or relative. They eat the jerky and throw the packaging in the bin. It ends up in landfill where it is eaten by a feral pig.

The feral pig contracts the virus. There are 24m feral pigs in Australia. The virus spreads and enters the domestic pig population. Infected pigs either die rapidly or must be euthanised. And Australia becomes the next country in Asia declared a trade risk.

That scenario could happen, says the Australian Animal Health Laboratory’s deputy director, Debbie Eagles. The laboratory, a

part of CSIRO, tested pork products seized at airports and from the mail system earlier this year and found a “reasonable proportion” carried the virus, which can be transmitted indirectly through packaging or clothing.

“If feral pigs were to come into contact with packaging that had held infected material, then it would be possible that transmission could occur in that way,” she says.

The virus can be destroyed by cooking or curing, but it depends on the method used. It is amazingly resilient to a variety of curing methods and environmental conditions. Any non-approved product from a host country poses a risk.

The consequences for Australia if the virus took hold are severe.

The local pork industry is worth $5.3bn, industry figures say, with 3,700 producers supporting 36,000 jobs.

“Depending on the spread of diseases, you would have to start again from scratch,” the Australian Pork Industry’s chief executive, Margo Andrae, says.

How could it get into Australia?

The most efficient method of transmission is pig-to-pig, usually through the exchange of bodily fluids. Australia has a longstanding ban on importing live pigs, pig genetic material and uncooked pig meat, all of which risk bringing in African swine fever, foot and mouth disease, and other pig diseases.

That ban is heavily enforced: two farmers in Western Australia were jailed in August for illegally importing Danish pig semen in shampoo bottles. In December a Brisbane company was fined $100,000 and its director $20,000 for importing uncooked pig meat which was considered a foot and mouth disease and swine fever risk.

 

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