The recent outbreak of Classical Swine Fever on a group of farms in Suffolk has presented the British pig industry with a severe financial and political test of will. The last time CSF occurred in the UK was 1986, long enough ago for most pig farmers to no longer consider shelving out insurance for the highly contagious viral infection.

CSF is virus with no known threat to human health. But it infects pigs and wild boar of any age with symptoms include fever (over 40 degrees Centigrade), lack of appetite and purple blotches on the skin as well as weak hind legs and diarrhoea. The virus is extremely contagious and transmitted by contact between animals, or contact with infected slurry or transport in inadequately cleaned trucks. Affected meat cannot be fed to other pigs and livestock for fear of infection.

Swine fever cannot be transmitted to humans either through contact or eating infected meat, according to veterinary understanding and the UK's Food Standards Agency.

Protection zones at three kilometres and ten km have been set up around the five contaminated Suffolk farms. Within these areas, no movement of pigs within or outside this area is allowed unless it is going directly to slaughter.

EU rules (under Directive 80/215/EC) allow animals from within the 10 km surveillance zones to go for slaughter and human consumption subject to heat treatment once MAFF has lifted its movement restrictions. The treatment consists of "cooking" the meat at 60 degrees Centigrade for four hours. The meat must then be hermetically sealed and indelibly marked with a health stamp. It is considered perfectly safe for human consumption.

The treatment ensures that the virus is killed, not, says a Meat and Livestock Commission spokesman, in the interests of human, but pig health. Treatment guards against the virus coming back into contact with other pigs, as for example, in case of a hiker wandering through a farm yard who drops his bacon sandwich.

Farm minister Nick Brown clearly set out the possibility for heat treatment on Friday, when he said "EU rules allow us, after a set period of time, to consider issuing licences allowing pigs to go for slaughter from the surveillance zones. The rules clearly require, as they did in other EU countries which have had outbreaks in recent years, that meat from these animals should be cooked before it goes on to the market." But the option will be subject to "producers, processors and retailers" proving that the option is viable.

The MLC estimates that in the 10km surveillance area alone, 21,000 animals are covered by the movement prohibitions.

Unfortunately, "we've no facilities for heat treatment," says an MLC official. "Because traditionally the meat trade supplies fresh and frozen, we haven't the processing meat sector to deal with treatment."

"Whether or not a market can be found for the treated meat (which is unlikely)," says the National Pig Association, "is almost irrelevant, the initial problem will be finding anyone who is geared up to doing it."

"The likely scenario," concludes the MLC official, "is that we will have to slaughter and destroy the animals."

The UK pig industry has suffered heavily over the past two years, as prices fell below break-even levels when global surpluses overcompensated for earlier swine fever outbreaks in the Netherlands. In 1999, production fell 10% on the previous year according to figures from the UK's MAFF.

The immediate crisis causes a shortage of animals which last week pushed prices up, as East Anglian supplies were held back on farm. An estimated 40,000 animals, accounting for some 20% of national production, could be held on farm, at producers' expense according the Meat and Livestock Commission. This would be a ruinous situation for many farmers if it continues beyond the end of August.

Industry estimates suggest that the cost of maintaining a small unit of 300 sows for one week is £12,000. And farmers in the affected region have no option but to meet the costs, as they cannot sell up to divest.

As long as the EU export ban remains in place, and the temporary ban was imposed until the end of the month, prices are likely to remain high.

Fortunately for the UK pig sector, all five affected farms are owned and operated by the same company, British Quality Pigs. BQP handles the entire production chain itself, from breeding to slaughter. This increasingly looks as though the potential spread of the disease is contained and the potential sources and outlets for infection have been minimised.

The company is a subsidiary of Associated British Nutrition, which itself is wholly owned by Associated British Foods.

Despite the potential for consumer market difficulties, the National Pig Association says "no major pig processor has stopped taking pigs from Suffolk." Indeed, the MLC adds that it has "so far not seen any sign of a reflection on trade," according to a spokesman and that the public appears to be taking heed of repeated media emphasis that this is not a human health story.

Nevertheless, the supermarket chain Asda, now part of the US retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc., last week ran into trouble when it had to explain its pigmeat sourcing policy. Accused of attempting to source its pigmeat from abroad in order to avoid the week's price hikes, it was forced onto the back-foot in the farming press by explaining that its buying policy includes British purchases at rates above those available elsewhere in the EU.

At the same time, the company's marketing team was accused of over exuberance by threatening to replace nine ranges of Belgian patés with UK sourced meats in a gesture of solidarity with British pig farmers against the European Commission imposed ban. "We will take this move in support of pig farmers," said an Asda spokesman, "who, should the ban remain, will need immediate support to ensure their businesses have a future."

While the pig industry endorses Asda's analysis of its farmers' plight, it denounced the chain's "symbolic gesture" as misguided. Describing the threat as "typical of the hyperactive public relations of the supermarket since its take-over by Wal-Mart," the NPA says, "there is no need for current British difficulties to dissolve into farce. The ban is a judicious one, squarely in line with precedent and rightly tough."

An import ban agreed by European Union vets from August 14 until the end of the month is consistent with standard EU procedures for treating CSF outbreaks, and is in line with those measures adopted in the case of problems in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain since 1997.

Since that year more than 9 million animals, or one quarter of the national herd, were slaughtered as a containment measure in Holland. The outbreak was severe enough to call the entire industry's practices into question, including its attendant environmental slurry and groundwater pollution problems, and led to far-reaching and controversial programme to dramatically slash production over 2000/01.

The problems caused by CSF have caused temporary shut downs in the respective Belgian, German and Spanish industries. Although the disease, once brought under control, has always been managed through restrictions and bans eventually applied at regional levels.

On Tuesday, August 22, the EU's scientific advisors, in the form of the Standing Veterinary Committee (SVC) made up of experts from each of the member states, will review the situation.

Whether their review will result in a more permanent export ban on meat and animals from East Anglia, or more likely, that the complete ban on exports from England remains in place beyond August, is not yet clear. Given that in addition to the five farms confirmed with CSF, a further 30 are currently being tested for the disease across England - a process that takes three days - the SVC seems likely to maintain an indefinite English ban.

Testing is being carried on farms in Cheshire, Dorset, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Sussex. These farms have a so-called "Form A" movement restrictions imposed on them until they test negative for CSF. The confusion arises because Porcine Dermatitis Nephropathy Syndrome (PDNS) and CSF have indistinguishable symptoms. In the circumstances, MAFF is advising farmers to report the symptoms as suspected swine fever.

Therefore, exports of pigs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not, and should not be affected by the EU's existing nor future export restrictions. How quickly regional divisions of the UK will be respected will to be seen on Tuesday and depends on proving adequate containment. Under EU regulations, other member states are obliged to recognise regional disease containment and differentiate import bans accordingly.

The overwhelming majority of UK exports go to the EU. Germany is the UK's largest export market, importing some 67,000 tonnes last year, followed by the Netherlands with some 34,500 tonnes. France and Italy each account for some 21,000 and 15,000 tonnes respectively.

Import bans by non-EU countries, including the United States, Canada and China, are not expected in the short run to have a major impact on the pig industry because volumes have been relatively low. The US imported just 3,380 tonnes in 1999, and in the first five months of 2000 a further 1,460 tonnes. Much of the US import market is in the form of ribs, and the US Department of Agriculture estimates that it accounts for some 1.7% of UK exports.

However, the bans, or temporary import suspensions in the US case, are likely to remain in place for at least six months. Japan's reaction, as a destination for some 5,500 tonnes of pigmeat last year, is an unknown quantity.

All told, the UK pig industry's prompt actions since August 9 could prevent the disease becoming a long term crisis although in the short term many farmers face severe financial difficulties. It remains to be seen how long prices will remain high and their impact on the market. The sector itself is certainly wary of hyping the problem at a commercial and political level.

By
Warren Giles