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Beagle brigade Farm Progress/Sarah Muirhead
Agricultural inspectors and the Beagle Brigade in U.S. airports are the first line of defense against African swine fever-tainted meat products getting into the United States in international travelers’ luggage. Liz Wagstrom, National Pork Producers Council chief veterinarian, credits these teams with doing a thorough job, but the NPPC has requested an additional 600 inspectors and 60 more beagles.

African swine fever prevention is a full team effort

Education and legislation needed to prevent virus from spreading.

Over a year has passed since African swine fever started grabbing headlines. It was first reported in China and has subsequently spread across Asia, as well as to some Eastern European countries. So far, the North American swine industry has been able to keep the costly virus from reaching its herd.

Is this a surprise? Is it just luck? Is it due to our preparation and prevention protocols?

“Without a doubt, we’re better off than we were a year ago,” says Paul Sundberg, executive director of the Swine Health Information Center. “I know it’s only been a year; but in my career, I don’t know of any time that we have made so much progress on one disease as quickly as we’ve made on prevention, preparedness and ability to respond to an emerging or foreign animal disease. It’s been remarkable the progress that we’ve made.”

Sundberg’s confidence in the strides the U.S. pork industry has made does not mean any industry leaders can rest on their laurels. Liz Wagstrom, the National Pork Producers Council chief veterinarian, has a wish list of what the industry still needs to prevent ASF and other foreign animal diseases from getting here; and for her, it’s a task for our congressional leaders in the nation’s capital.

“We need adequate funding to add 600 more agricultural inspectors for customs and border protection,” she says, as well other items the NPPC is working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to change. Such changes include customs forms or the customs declaration travelers must sign when coming into the United States. “That would more clarify what is a risky encounter, whether it’s not just farm animals.” Wagstrom says. “Having passengers understand, whether it’s through a better customs form or whether it’s through more videos on the airplanes or more signage in the airports — we need to get passengers that have nothing to do with agriculture to understand that they could be presenting a risk to animal health if they bring in illegal meat products.”

Only when it pertains to spreading, ASF has been labeled a “human disease,” meaning that humans present the greatest risk of bringing the virus to the U.S. by intentionally or unintentionally bringing in a contaminated meat product. However, using this terminology may create a false fear that humans are in danger of “catching” ASF, which is not the case. Humans cannot contract ASF from animals or pork, but they can carry the virus by transporting contaminated meat products or carry it on their clothing and shoes if they visited farms in an infected country.

More agricultural inspectors needed
In the effort to halt contaminated meat products and thoroughly question travelers coming from high-risk areas, Wagstrom says the need for those 600 additional agricultural inspectors comes with an annual price tag of about $100 million. These 600 inspectors would be added to the 2,500 already on the job. Wagstrom recently saw firsthand the level of awareness of the airport inspectors as she was pulled aside for secondary screening upon arrival from Colombia, which is not considered free of foot-and-mouth disease.

“I was pulled aside for secondary screening, even though I hadn’t been at a farm; so I sat and visited with people as they’re unpacking my suitcase and looking for whatever I might’ve brought home and didn’t declare,” she says. “The awareness that they have was very high. So, I was asking about what did they know about African swine fever, and what did they know about foot-and-mouth, and why was the flight from Columbia a concern? … The CBP did a very thorough job. They virtually unpacked my entire suitcase, looked in every bottle of everything I had. Just in speaking with them, they were very aware of the situation worldwide with animal disease.” She says these inspectors on the ground in Atlanta were also well-aware of the push for more agriculture inspectors, and that legislation that is working its way through the halls of Congress.

That legislation referenced is a Senate committee passed bill sponsored by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and cosponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; and John Cornyn, R-Texas. It authorizes 200 inspectors per year until the 600-inspector level is reached, as well as adding 60 inspector beagles to the force. “All that does is authorize to spend the money; it doesn’t give you the money to spend,” Wagstrom says.

The House had already passed its appropriations, so if this bill survived the full Senate and funds are appropriated, then the legislation would go to a conference committee to hash out differences in House and Senate bills. “At this point in time, there is no money in the budget for additional appropriations,” she says. “I think when we started this and we were talking to the Homeland Security Committee, the president’s budget, I think, authorized five additional inspectors — and we need 600.”

Even if all the stars align, and 600 new inspectors are approved and appropriated, Wagstrom says it realistically could be a few years before the full team roster would be complete, considering the need to identify, hire and train qualified personnel.

Educating the public
While the U.S. hog industry waits for more inspectors, Dave Pyburn, National Pork Board senior vice president of science and technology, agrees with Wagstrom. Consumer education needs to be stepped up to prevent the spread of ASF in tainted meat or contaminated clothing — especially with international travelers.

Images of tables piled with confiscated meat products show that agriculture inspectors and the Beagle Brigade are doing their job. And though these products have not been tested for the presence of ASF, Pyburn assumes it has been present. “When you look at some of the testing that’s happening in Australia and Ireland and Taiwan, there’s a number of products that they’re seizing from incoming passengers that are being detected as [ASF-] positive by a PCR [polymerase chain reaction] test. … So, we’ve got to assume that we’ve had products brought into this country that probably contain the virus.”

Confiscated products at U.S. ports and airports are seized and incinerated, so there is no definitive way to know for sure if ASF has reached the U.S. However, Pyburn puts it into the bigger perspective: “We should assume that there is a high risk of virus entry this way and then take appropriate actions to counter it, since it’s likely the most likely way it will enter the country.”

While the U.S. hog industry should be well aware of the risks ASF presents to the ag economy, and hog producers and allied industry members should know the precautions to take when traveling, that group accounts for very few of the daily travelers coming into U.S. airports from potentially ASF-contaminated countries.

Producers can help spread the word to the non-ag populace whenever the opportunity arises — as Pyburn did when speaking at a registered dietitian summit in California in August. After explaining common swine production practices, and knowing he had a captive audience that can influence the consumer, he spoke on the dangers of ASF, and how every consumer can play a role in keeping the hog industry safe and ASF-free.

Reaching a captive audience is where airlines and airports can play a role. As an example of playing to the captive audience of the airline passenger, Pyburn tells of a video that he watched while returning from Italy. Though he may have been the only one on the plane who was viewing a video that was prepared by the Australian government about the dangers of bringing illegal materials into the island continent, he says it would be nice if our domestic airlines could make such a video a part of standard operating procedure in preparing for flight, much like the flight attendants running through the seat belt and water landing safety presentation.

“That’d be another thing we could do with the airlines, is some sort of a five-minute, before-you-land type of public presentation,” Pyburn says. Such a presentation would not be swine-specific or ASF-specific, as there are dangers for all species as well as crops. “Even though there’s few of us in it today, we are still an ag-based economy. If our agriculture fell out from underneath the pyramid of our economy, everything would collapse.”

Halt wild boar spread
As has been shown in Eastern Europe, ASF has potential to spread through feral swine. Control of the wild boar population in the U.S. is underway through efforts of the USDA. Pyburn says more education may be necessary in that battle, as wild boar hunting is popular in some parts of the country. “We have caught people that have tried to illegally move them and get them set up as a hunting type of animal down in southern Iowa,” Pyburn says, adding that Iowa had eradicated feral swine about 10 years ago.

Preventing the spread of ASF into the U.S. swine herd can seem like a daunting task, but Pyburn feels it’s a battle worth waging, and one that the industry can win. Obviously, though, it’s going to take the cooperation of more than just hog producers and allied industry to keep ASF status as if it comes to America, rather than when it hits.

“For me it’s still ‘if.’ It’s still got to be if, because the ‘when’ is too ugly,” says Pyburn.

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