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Taiwan determined to keep out lethal virus from China

2018/12/31 19:17:10

CNA file photo

By CNA staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

Taiwan has always been wary of China's efforts to annex it, especially as Beijing beefs up its military and maintains the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control.

But what Taiwan currently fears more than China's missiles is the African swine fever (ASF) virus that has already spread to 23 of China's 31 provinces and municipalities.

Since the first confirmed case of ASF infection in swine was reported in Liaoning Province in August, Taiwan has been on high alert, worried that an invasion of the extremely deadly virus could destroy a vital and valuable sector of the country's economy -- its pig-farming industry.

CNA file photo

It has taken several unprecedented steps to keep ASF away from an industry that consists of 7,240 hog farms raising nearly 5.4 million pigs as of May and generates NT$80 billion (US$2.58 billion) in value directly and another NT$200 billion through peripheral businesses.

The fine on people who bring in meat or meat products as trifling as pork jerky has been increased from NT$50,000 to NT$200,000, and second offenders are subject to a fine up to NT$1 million.

Also, regulations have been tightened to block parcels containing meat that are sent to Taiwan from abroad through the post office or a courier service, and local hog farms have been repeatedly warned not to feed untreated kitchen waste to their animals.

The concerns are not ill-founded.

As of Dec. 20, Taiwan had found seven ASF cases in more than 600 meat samples seized by customs officers at Taiwan's borders despite the stiff fines, leading to a stern warning from Council of Agriculture (COA) deputy chief Huang Chin-Cheng (黃金城).

"If Taiwanese are willing to play by the rules, then there is a very good chance that our hog industry will weather the storm. If not, may the grace of God be with Taiwan," Huang said.

CNA file photo

He was referring to three golden principles in preventing the spread of ASF from China -- not bringing meat products into Taiwan, not visiting animal farms while in China, and not buying meat items from China online.

Although the ASF virus does not affect humans, it is fatal to pigs. There is no vaccine to prevent it from attacking the animal, both wild and domestic, or medicine to cure the infected.

It is also highly resilient. According to the COA's Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection and Quarantine (BAPHIQ), the ASF virus can survive in chilled pork for 100 days, in frozen pork for 1,000 days, at hot farms for one month, and in stool at room temperature for 11 days.

The deadly virus spreads through contact via swill, secretions or excretions from arthropods, vehicles and people, and if pigs do get infected, the virus can only be stopped by slaughtering the sick pigs and incinerating or chemically treating their carcasses.

Taiwan is particularly upset with the seeming nonchalance with which China is addressing the outbreak, despite its spread there.

Ma Xiaoguang (馬曉光), spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, claimed on Dec. 26 that it has been effectively controlled and rejected a reporter's description of the ASF epidemic in China as having reached a "massive scale."

Taiwan has desperately pressed Beijing for more information and urged it to provide updates of ASF outbreaks, to no avail.

Border checks not enough

Strict border checks can only go so far in protecting Taiwan's hogs from ASF given that the virus can easily breach security measures by hiding in meat or processed meat products from infected areas or on people who visited infected farms.

CNA file photo

The food issue is considered the biggest threat because of the widespread use of kitchen leftovers to feed pigs in Taiwan.

Leftovers have to be heated at 90 degrees Celsius for at least an hour to kill any ASF virus present, but only 300 of the 2,045 hog farms around Taiwan that use leftovers to feed their nearly 650,000 pigs have the necessary heating equipment, Li Tui-chih (李退之), another COA deputy chief, said on Dec. 27.

It's a major loophole in the fight against ASF, leading some to suggest banning the use of swill as hog feed to minimize the risk. The Yunlin County government announced such a ban on Dec. 25.

Fang Chih-yuan (方志源), an executive member of the Pingtung County Swine Association who runs a farm of more than 900 black pigs, said the secret to producing the firm and lean pork the black pigs are prized for is feeding them swill.

He believed that if the central government imposed a nationwide ban on the use of swill as pig feed, it would lead black pig farmers like him to shut down their businesses.

CNA file photo

Rather than imposing a ban, the central government has currently opted to offer subsidies to pig breeders who use swill to shift to more expensive feed made from grains.

But that also raises an environmental dilemma. Taiwan generates over 550,000 metric tons of kitchen waste and leftovers a year, 60 percent of which are currently shipped to hog farms to serve as swill, according to the Environmental Protection Administration.

A complete ban or shift away from swill could potentially add hundreds of thousands of metric tons of waste Taiwan would have to dispose of, something Premier Lai Ching-te (賴清德) said would "be very difficult to handle."

Environmentalists agree, arguing that banning the use of swill as feed could cause an environmental problem, whether the waste is composted or incinerated. They support the use of pasteurized pigswill, but that may be a tough ask for many farmers who cannot afford the equipment.

For one hog farmer, treating swill the right way is the only answer.

New Taipei Swine Association Chairman Lee Dang-chi (李當期), who has been in the hog-raising industry for 16 years, told CNA he takes the quarantine measure seriously.

He needs 30 to 40 barrels of swill a day for his hog farms, Lee said, and he is used to boiling the waste for four to five hours at a temperature of 150 degrees.

"I wouldn't put my property at risk," he said.