African Swine Fever: the fight to save Queensland’s bacon

This episode is all about the battle to prevent African Swine Fever from reaching Queensland shores. The CSIRO’s Dr David Williams explains why this disease is so virulent, killing a quarter of the world’s pigs in the latest outbreak. The manager of one of Queensland’s biggest piggeries Rob Martyn explains what is being done on his Darling Downs property to prepare for a potential outbreak. Dr Allison Crook and Dr Jonathan Lee explain how the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is working with the industry on a prevention and containment plan and what consumers can do to stop the disease from getting into Queensland.

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Meet our guests

Rob Martyn Rob Martyn
Debra Kerr Debra Kerr
Dr David Williams Dr David Williams
John Coward John Coward
Dr Allison Crook Dr Allison Crook
Dr Jonathan Lee Dr Jonathan Lee


Program Intro: Welcome to Turf and Surf powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. Shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: It is a disease that has killed millions, there is no cure and it is nearly impossible to stop once it takes hold. Unless something is done now it could mean the end to hams at Christmas and the traditional Sunday roast. Hundreds of thousands of pigs will have to be slaughtered to prevent its spread bringing the multi-million dollar pork industry in Queensland to a halt. Hi, I’m Fidelis, and on this episode of Turf and Surf we will look at African Swine Fever, a disease that is devastating the pork industry around the world.  We will talk to the men and women who are actively working to prevent this disease from reaching our shores and will find out more about what we can all do to make sure Australia remains disease free.

As the name suggests, African Swine Fever originated in Africa but it has left its mark right around the world. The CSIRO’s Dr David Williams has been studying the disease for some time.

Dr David Williams: So the obvious, or its external signs in terms of the disease are, initially are high fever and as the disease progresses and as the pigs get sicker they become depressed, they stop eating and then the signs of haemorrhage or signs of bleeding start to appear.  And that can look like bruising under the skin, it might lead to sores and pigs can also get reddened or pink ear tips which is typical. And then at the later stage of the disease they can start to have blood in their faeces and show signs of difficulty breathing.  So not all pigs show all of these signs so it can vary and the disease can affect both domestic or farm pigs as well as wild boar or feral pigs which is what we have in Australia.  One of the important methods is I guess we have is that some of those symptoms can appear or can be caused by other viruses that cause other diseases as well.

Host: China is one of the world’s biggest consumers of pork . And the disease has devastated their industry .Pork Queensland’s Jon Coward is part of an international panel that’s been working with countries to prepare for African Swine Fever.

John Coward: I think it was about October, November where we had about 15 to 25 percent of their pig population affected by ASF and by the time I went back in May that had reached 45 to 50 percent of their pig population had either been infected and destroyed or had died from ASF.  So, and that country itself has got some sophisticated biosecurity measures in place.  It has also got many, many backyard farms so that was one of the reasons why it was so rampant in getting away in China and the same applies to Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos, Philippines and as people will have heard it has been transferred probably by meat scraps being, or meat products being taken to East Timor with poor biosecurity at the border has now gained access into East Timor

Host: Timor Leste or East Timor, is just 650 kilometres from Australian shores. The focus right around Australia is on people bringing in pork products that could be potentially infected with African Swine Fever. In separate incidents, two Vietnamese nationals were refused entry to Australia and deported after failing to declare kilos of pork products. Both will not be allowed into Australia for three years. The message is clear- to prevent African Swine Fever from getting a foothold here, don’t bring prohibited meat products into the country.

Program segue: You’re listening to Turf and Surf, the official podcast of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: In Queensland, authorities have been preparing for the disease for the best part of the year. Dr Allison Crook is Queensland’s Chief Veterinary officer.

Dr Allison Crook: We had been watching African Swine Fever as it spread over the last few years, particularly in 2018 but the confirmation in Timor-Leste put it right on our doorstep within 650 kilometres of Australia.  So after that the conversations were really about sharply focusing people around their bio security, on farm but also awareness around prevention of introducing African Swine Fever into Queensland and Australia.

Host: What have you been telling industry whether it’s processes, whether it is pig farms themselves?

Dr Allison Crook: We have been working with them about thinking about their current biosecurity practices, are they sufficient or are there other elements that they should be thinking about. For example, who is actually coming on to their farm, who is interacting with the pigs, what is going on.  Other conversations we have been having is about business continuity considerations.  So in the event that something does happen that what thinking have they done beforehand about how will they manage while a response is on or indeed if there is any impact on their normal business and normal movement of pigs.

Host: The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is working closely with Queensland’s pig industry on prevention and protection measures against African Swine Fever. The Department’s principal vet Dr Jonathan Lee says it’s important the food given to pigs is free of contaminants.

Dr Jonathan Lee: Swill feeding is basically feeding pigs material that may contain those products and usually it’s human food. So things like waste from restaurants, feed companies that are producing raw feed.  For instance, I had an enquiry the other day, some people wanted to feed some pigs ice cream from, surplus from an ice cream factory, they’re not allowed to do that okay so you can only feed process feed to pigs or pure vegetable material that has never had any contact with meat or poultry products.

Host: The industry is quite varied, you have big piggeries, you have big processes but you also have small pig owners with small farms with one or two pigs, what role do those small farms have?

Dr Jonathan Lee: Okay so basically the small farms are important because they are the most likely guys to be initially infected and the reason for that is because a lot of these small holders are not registered with us, they don’t have a PIC, a property identification code and the movements of their animals to and from their farms are not recorded so that’s the first thing. So I will give you a scenario. Scenario is that somebody in Logan has got about 30 or 40 pigs that he is using and he sells those pigs to a whole range of different people.  His brother comes back over from Vietnam and brings him a care package which they have a meal, celebration meal.  The scraps from that meal go in the scraps bin and then get chucked in with pigs. These pigs then start to become sick. Now African Swine Fever has got an incubation period, that is the period from the time the animals are exposed until the time they get sick of 5 to 15 days.  So in that period these pigs are now infected but not showing any clinical signs.  And so this fellow may then, as his usual operations sell pigs and these sort of people usually sell pigs either through sale yards, to friends and acquaintances or even things like Gumtree, a lot of these pigs are actually sold on Gumtree, people come to the property, pick up some pigs and take them back home.  None of that is recorded in a lot of cases. Whereas the big piggeries, they are all registered, they all have a PIC and we trace the movement of animals in and out of those big premises so we have a much better idea about where those pigs are going.

HOST: As the pig industry body, Australian Pork Ltd has been working closely with the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to get producers ASF ready. APL’s Deb Kerr says the industry is well aware of the dangers this disease poses.

Deb Kerr: You know that has taken a number of facets for producers, some have foreign workers so they have been concerned about what do they need to put in place for their foreign workers when they return back to Australia to work and others have been focused on the biosecurity on the farm and enhancing that biosecurity on the farm and that could be as simple as banning your employees from bringing any pork products for lunch for example or increasing where, the biosecurity around where the clean area of the farm is and where the dirty area of the farm is and making sure there is no crossover there. So as an industry certainly those two have been of significant focus for producers and supply chain at APL.  And in the meantime we are working with all the various levels of government on our preparedness should the disease actually arrive in Australia and making sure that those arrangements are in place and ready to go and that by doing that we could control an outbreak as quick as time as we can and reduce the impact to Australia.

Host: Warra on the Darling Downs west of Brisbane is home to one of Queensland’s biggest piggeries. Tong Park is a 12 and a half thousand-acre property owned by Sunpork and has about 100-thousand pigs at any given time. Manager Rob Martyn says their preparations for African Swine Fever are well advanced.

Rob Martyn: We are quite lucky here at this farm here that I manage, it was built by a company that went with a US design and had biosecurity in mind so we’re extremely lucky with the design of it.  But even in saying that we are still doing things to try and increase our biosecurity.  We installed a second fence around all of our piggeries a couple of years ago to try and reduce the risk of feral pigs coming close to our sheds so we invested in that a couple of years ago and we are quite thankful we did now because I know there is a lot of farmers that are trying to work out the costs involved in doing that and it’s not cheap but we’re lucky we did that a few years ago.  Probably about 12 months ago now we’ve bought in a new protocol that there was no pork products to be bought on farms for staff lunches or contractors. So no hams or bacon or anything like that, people can’t bring pizza because it has got bacon on it.  So we bought that in as I said 12 months ago and that was purely based around the risk of ASF because a lot of our ham and bacon in Australia is all from imported meats so there is a real risk of that potentially having African Swine Fever in it.  So although it doesn’t harm people which is a good thing, it has got a real risk to pigs.

Program segue: This Turf and Surf podcast is powered by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, shaping and protecting food and fibre for tomorrow’s Queensland.

Host: There is a national strategy in place if African Swine Fever is ever detected in Australia. Called the Ausvetplan, it’s an agreement between all states and territories, the federal government and industry on how to deal with an animal disease outbreak. Dr Jonathan Lee says one way African Swine Fever could spread in Queensland is through the state’s feral pig population.

Jonathan Lee: But increasingly we’re getting people who’ve got free range pigs now. And certainly feral pigs interacting with those free range pigs could be a real risk for us either in transmitting the disease to those domestic pigs or from the domestic pigs back into the feral pigs. And as we see now increasingly feral pigs are very adaptable animals and they are closely associated with urban and peri-urban areas.  You know for instance just here, Toowong Cemetery, feral pigs move through Toowong cemetery and that’s in the middle of Brisbane.

Host: How do you contain it? how do you stop it from spreading given how virulent it is?

Dr Jonathan Lee: Now under Queensland law if you own pigs or other livestock you are required by law to get a property identification code and register the fact that you have got livestock.  You then have to keep records of the movements of these animals.  So what we would be looking for in an outbreak like this is very rapidly trying to concentrate on where that outbreak has been and trace the movement of any animals that have come off that premise to any other premises that we can look for to see if there is any disease on those ones.  Now the problem is in some of these diseases they can spread so quickly that it’s very hard to catch up with them by tracing and so if people are moving animals without any records then it’s very hard for us to find out where those animals have gone. Basically the main thing we would be looking at is movement restrictions. So what we probably do is establish an area, what we call a restricted area which is a zone around the infected premise and then outside that is a control area.  Within those two areas there are movement restrictions so people would not be able to move their pigs and then we would do investigation to find out which properties are affected and which ones aren’t.  Now the infected properties, the first thing we have to do when we get an outbreak like this is because it is a nationally notifiable disease and there is an agreement called the AIRDRA which is an agreement between the states, the Commonwealth and industry to respond to significant diseases and this is one of those.  In that we use a plan called the AusVet plan and there are specific actions that we have to take on an outbreak.  So containment is one of them, movement restrictions, tracing is another one and then to get rid of the disease we would do what is called stamping out and that means that all infected pigs on infected premises are slaughtered and disposed of so that we can try and remove the threat of the virus.

Host: Rob Martyn from Tong Park says the disease would be potentially devastating if it ever got onto his piggery.

Rob Martyn: It would be a big thing for the, I would imagine for the company to repopulate. it’s quite a large farm but the worst part about the whole thing is because it’s a notifiable disease, if a farm gets a positive to having a disease then every animal on that farm, every pig needs to be euthanised.  So as I said earlier we have got over 100,000 pigs here so that’s not an easy task and not a very nice task so that’s yeah, we do not want it to get here, that would be a terrible thing for us to go through and for staff to have to go through. And then there is a real risk that potentially you know there is no jobs after that so we need to do everything we can and that’s what we have been talking to our staff about because we need to engage with our staff, explain to them what the risk is as to why it’s important we need to keep this thing out, we need to protect our pigs firstly, protect ourselves and protect our business.

Host: He says the message to consumers is simple.

Rob Martyn: The one message we have been trying to really relay is for people to stop illegally bringing meat back into the country, when you travel overseas don’t bring a piece of salami back for your family friend- that is a real risk.  We are going to make sure that people understand it is illegal and a high risk to feed swill to pigs so that’s you know food scraps, particularly meat. If we can get those messages out then we can be reducing the risk of this thing getting to Australia and yeah, people can you know look for the pink Australian pork mark when they are buying their pork, make sure they are buying Aussie pork that supports our farmers. Aussie farmers, you know a lot of farmers, particularly pig farmers have been doing it tough for the last couple of years so it is hard to come out of a couple of years of poor financial returns and then be hit with a challenge like this because sometimes the, you know the bank account is a bit drained and this is when you need some funds to be investing back into the farmer putting fences up to protect ourselves so if people can support the Aussie pig farmers, buy Aussie pork and that is one way they can support us as well.

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