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African Swine Fever in Europe: Big money at stake

Many observed it, only a few warned about it – African Swine Fever entering the European Union. Now that the first cases have been 
confirmed in Lithuania and Poland, two 
questions arise: What are the financial 
consequences and how can it be stopped?

By Vladislav Vorotnikov and Vincent ter Beek

There were times when mutual understanding between the European Union (EU) and Russia was at a higher level than these days. In the EU, frustration and anger best describe the attitude of Europe's pig industry as they are counting their losses after Russia recently closed its borders to pig and pork products from the EU. The reason for the ban are four discoveries of African Swine Fever (ASF), found in wild boars in Lithuania and Poland in January, two in each country.

The Russian veterinary watchdog Rosselhoznadzor, having several years of experience with ASF, is warning that the ban may not be the most serious problem for the pig industry in the European Union (EU). Rather, the EU should watch the progress of the virus more carefully.

Loss of export markets
The lack of opportunities to sell pork to Russia is a reason for concern amongst pig breeders and growers throughout Europe. Especially the pig industries in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany are affected by the ban as large proportions of the pigs produced in these countries go abroad – normally a substantial part also goes to Russia.

For Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, directly neighbouring Russia, the situation is precarious for several other reasons as well. The vicinity of Russia means they are likely to suffer from a longer ban than the rest of Europe. In addition, the likelihood of finding sufficient alternative markets is smaller than for other countries. Should the ban last for five years, as indicated by some Russian vets, about a third of the region's pig producers may have to shut shop.

Lithuania
Lithuania is the only Baltic country in which ASF has been confirmed in wild boars. Algis Baravikasa, director of the country's Association of Pig Breeders, said in a press release that all of Lithuania's efforts are currently focused on avoiding contamination on-farm.

On top of that, the country's industry is working on the verge of profitability as prices have plummeted on all Baltic markets. Based on the association's figures, the total losses for the pig industry in all three Baltic countries together may be as high as €50 million. Exact figures are hard to give, as the region's pork prices might continue to decline.

Estonia
In Estonia, the pig industry urged its government to take action. An open letter, sent to Helir-Valdor Seeder, Estonia's minister of agriculture, warned that the industry would lose serious money in case the authorities do not move. One of the authors of the letter was Teet Sorma, chairman of AS Rakvere Lihakombinaat (Rakvere meat processing plant), the largest producer of meat products in the Baltic states. The company owns three subsidiaries as well as Ekseko, the largest pig farm in the Baltics.

The letter read, "In the second half of February, the situation for EU's pig production has become extremely complicated, as the price drop has been very sharp. For example, in Estonia, the export price of live pigs fell by a quarter compared to usual February and March rates. Please believe that the situation is extremely alarming."

The letter continues, "Pork production is a traditional and important industry, and we manufacture more than we are consuming. This means that live pigs as well as pork are a significant export commodity. The current situation can lead to a dramatic reduction in pork production in Estonia."

The authors also expressed their  concerns that, later in the year, one part of the EU may regain access to sell pork to Russia. The Baltic countries, as well as Poland and other EU countries affected by ASF outbreaks, however, may face a long, multiple-year ban, as Sergey Dankvert, head of Rosselkhoznadzor, announced this personally. There is, in short, fear that Estonia will be among those countries punished heavily.

Latvia
In Latvia, late last year, the average purchase price of pork reached €1.82/ kg. After the ban, this dropped to €1.51/kg, the Latvian Pig Producers Association reported. The domestic markets are currently oversupplied and this oversupply is growing, so the prices may further decrease during the spring months.

Russia and ASF
Far away from the economic troubles in Western and Middle Europe, Russia's veterinarians are worried about a different topic - the spread of the ASF virus. According to Rosselkhoznadzor estimates, the virus' average advancement rate is 1 km/ day in whichever direction. The veterinary agency is known not to attach much value to the absence of further ASF confirmations after those in Poland and Lithuania in January. In the cold season, the agency thinks, the originally tropical virus is 'conserved' and for that reason may temporarily not have conquered new territories.

Even stronger – the Russian watchdog had already predicted the spread of ASF virus into Europe. The agency forecasted that the virus could get into Europe through a 'northern route' (via St Petersburg, Belarus and the Baltic countries) in mid-2014 but also through the 'southern way' (through Ukraine and Moldova to Hungary and Romania), occurring roughly one year later – in early or mid-2015.

It is this problem, Rosselkhoznadzor experts state, which really should get the attention of EU veterinarians. The virus is already in Europe and is threatening the local pig industry with losses in the hundreds of millions of euros. The message from Russia is clear: It is a situation which should not and cannot be unterestimated.

Anton Aspenov, Rosselkhoznadzor state veterinary inspector of the department for the Voronezh and Volgograd regions, told Pig Progress: "European vets are now finding themselves in a situation where Rosselhoznadzor was about seven years ago. When we recorded the first outbreak on the outskirts of the southern part of the country, we did not think that in a few years the entire European part would be covered by this epizootic disease and that direct losses from the virus would exceed US$1 billion."

Aspenov continued, "The situation now is just the same, and the EU is making the same mistakes as Russia did. Instead of taking urgent preventive actions, for e.g. shooting wild boars, creating buffer zones without pig farms on the borders, limiting transportation and transit of food and allocating money for farm modernisation, the authorities continue to slowly discuss the problem."

Russia points to the relatively high concentration of pig farms in the Baltic states, Poland, Germany as well as the neighbouring countries. In addition, they state that there is not one veterinary authority in the European Union. This could result in inaction for months, leading to catastrophic consequences for the industry.

Shifting opinions
No need to tell the Baltic states about the imminent threat the virus constitutes – and it is no surprise their attitude reflects that of Russia's veterinarians.

In the open letter, Estonia's Teet Sorma also said, "We can not forget about the real threat to the farms because of the spread of disease. To date, outbreaks have been recorded [close by] in Russia (about 200 km from the Estonian border) and Lithuania (in wild boars, about 400 km from the Estonian border). Everybody knows that the wild boar population plays an important role in the distribution of ASF, believed to be an additional factor for accelerating the spread of disease."

The role of wild boars has been a cause of fear for Lithuania as well and for quite some time, the country has been asking for EU funds to build a fence at its border in order to keep the wild boars out. Money was requested from the European Commission (EC) as early as 2013 but only in March 2014 about €2 million went to Lithuania – for studies, research, disinfection and information campaigns.

Jonas Milus, director of the Lithuanian National Food and Veterinary Service said that the EC until very recently did not appear to pay attention to veterinary warnings on the danger of ASF penetration into the Baltic states – but there was a continued call for more funds to set up a fence. He said, "Wild fauna is very difficult to control. We have to do whatever it takes to prevent the spread of disease. Now restrictions on pork exports are in their place, all officials should take responsibility for the failure to comply with our wishes, especially with regard to physical barriers, a fence. We know that especially at the border areas there are large wild boar migrations. When there are no physical barriers, we will continue to have a problem."

Source: Pig Progress magazine 30.4 (2014)


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Photo

  • Wild boars are thought to be responsible for spreading the ASF virus.

    Wild boars are thought to be responsible for spreading the ASF virus.

Vladislav Vorotnikov & Vincent ter Beek

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