African swine fever, the disease that has ravaged the global pig population, may be on our doorstep, but Australian butchers, farmers and government agencies are preparing themselves.
“They say it’s only a matter of time before it gets here,” says smallgoods producer Felix Gamze from Gamze Smokehouse in Victoria.
He refers to the announcement last month by the World Organisation for Animal Health that African swine fever has reached Timor-Leste, nearly 700 kilometres from Darwin.
Gamze is already preparing his business. He makes hams, bacons and sausages from locally grown free-range pork.
But with the threat of this lethal pig disease on our shores he is already diversifying into the production of smoked fish, turkey bacon and smoked chicken products.
“We’ve seen the price of pork go up with the drought,” Gamze says.
African swine fever is a virus that can kill 80 per cent of pigs it infects.
“This will be nothing if African swine fever jumps the Timor Sea.”
African swine fever is a virus that can kill 80 per cent of pigs it infects, has no vaccine, and is easily transferred through pork products, and shoes or clothing that have come in contact with infected pigs.
It is now endemic to most of Asia including China, the Philippines and both Koreas as well as the European nations of Belgium, Slovenia and Slovakia.
In China it estimated that 40 per cent of their 440 million pig population has already died or been slaughtered.
The virus is very tough and can withstand freezing, temperatures up to 100C and weeks at sea.
Thankfully, it is not a health issue for humans. It only affects pigs.
Which is why Aboriginal rangers have been enlisted by the Northern Territory’s department of primary industries and resources to report any suspected outbreaks in the Top End’s resident feral pig population.
It is estimated Australia has a population of 23 million wild pigs. One department official recently commented that “if African swine fever got into the feral pig population, Australia could say, ‘bye bye bacon'”.
The work with traditional owners goes hand in hand with the department’s “protect our pigs” social media campaign, depicting a wild boar with a mohawk and a snotty nose.
Darwin airport, with daily passenger flights from Timor-Leste, is under the surveillance of Suki the sniffer dog, who has already detected salami, ham and pork sausages being smuggled into Darwin.
Farmers across Australia are also taking extra precautions with biosecurity.
The general manager of marketing at Australian Pork Limited, Peter Haydon, says, “People going onto farms need to shower and change into clothing and footwear that stays on farm.”
He says that while this has been procedure for some time there is a heightened sense of vigilance with the virus so close to Australia’s shores.
“Farmers are also asking workers not to bring ham sandwiches or other pork products in their lunches to lessen the chance of pork dropping (on the ground) and pigs eating it,” Haydon says.
The effect of the huge loss in China’s pork population may not change Australian pork prices.
Slightly more than half the pork we consume here is locally grown, while 45 per cent is imported.
This is almost exclusively used for hams and bacon. Haydon says local manufacturers have already stockpiled a massive 40,000 tonnes of imported pork.
“Australia is a wealthy country,” he says. “We can afford to pay for pork on the global market.”
The search to find protein for China’s millions could whack the great Australian barbecue, however.
“Chinese meat buyers are buying beef and lamb at a rate we have never seen before,” says meat distributor James Madden from Flinders + Co in Victoria.
“They are bidding at the bottom end of the market for offal and trim at an extraordinary rate.
“So, it is the everyday Australian who loves their cheap sausages and burgers who are now competing with what customers in China are prepared to pay for it. And it is not going to get better soon.”
Gamze is not looking confident the disease can be kept out of Australia.
“In the meantime,” he says. “Buy an Australian-grown ham at Christmas. You’ll make a farmer happy.”
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