In the last two weeks, the Department of Agriculture (DA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have been up in arms battling a possible outbreak of African swine fever (ASF) on Philippine shores. This has led to a strict importation ban on pork from ASF-affected countries, including a controversial prohibition on all Ma Ling products.

On the surface, the ban could lead to less but more expensive pork products in grocery stores and the meat market, but a deep dive into the issue reveals a precautionary reaction to a global disease that has the potential to wipe out the country’s P200 billion hog industry.

Here’s everything you need to know about the pork ban and ASF:

What is ASF?

According to the World Health Organization for Animal Health, ASF is a highly contagious hemorrhagic disease for pigs. It can decimate hog populations in a matter of weeks if the infected population isn’t detected and culled at once.

African swine fever was first reported in Sub-Saharan Africa where it spread and ravaged Eastern Europe and eventually made its way to China where 1.1 million hogs have been culled so far. By the end of 2019, as many as 200 million pigs in China alone are expected to be affected, and slaughtered, by the virus. In Spain, it took 35 years to recover from an outbreak.

At the moment, China, Mongolia, North Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Cambodia all have confirmed outbreaks. However, all countries on the continent are on high alert.

Why is ASF so dangerous?

Based on epidemiological studies of cases in China, majority of outbreaks were caused by contaminated vehicles and workers and infected pig feed/swill. Only 19 percent of outbreaks were actually caused by live pigs or pork products.

The most dangerous thing about ASF is its resilience to extreme temperatures and pH environments, making it near impossible to stop. It can survive 60 days in canned stew, 104 days in frozen meat, and 399 days in Parma hams. No vaccine or cure has been found yet.

While the disease is not deadly to humans, it is extremely dangerous to a country’s hog industry and, thus, economy.

African swine fever has no known cure
African swine fever has no known cure

How will this affect the economy?

The local hog industry is currently valued at over P200 billion, making any threat concerning to say the least, especially since ASF has no known cure and necessitates decades-long recovery period. Millions of farmers, importers, traders, and persons working in the meat industry would be left financially vulnerable if the industry collapses.

“ASF is a deadly disease of hogs, which has no vaccination and no known cure. Although it is not contagious to humans, the disease could wipe out the hog population of a country,” says DA Secretary Emmanuel Piñol.

The impact ASF could have on the economy is huge, with the damage potentially irreversible. China has already felt the effects of spiking inflation. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs projects a 70 percent hike in pork prices by the end of the year.

Piñol has also noted that the pork ban will require the country to rely primarily on its local pork industry. However, he admits that eventually, local pork will run out, prices will increase, and other countries will have to be tapped as potential pork suppliers.

What precautions are we taking against ASF?

Piñol issued a memorandum instructing all courier services to reject any canned meat or meat products coming from ASF-affected countries. Live pigs and their products from the following are also prohibited from entering the country: Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, Zambia, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong, and North Korea.

“Furthermore, all arriving agricultural commodities from restricted countries are subject to immediate stoppage, confiscation, and destruction by the Veterinary Quarantine Officers at the border of entry for proper disposal,” the memorandum states.

An inter-agency task force is also in the works to handle the ASF threat. The first batch of meat-sniffing dogs was also recently deployed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

On the FDA’s part, all importers, dealers, and distributors are “ordered to immediately recall all pork meat products imported from countries suspected to be affected by the African swine fever virus.”

While precautionary steps have begun, there are still remote cases of meat smuggling that pose a threat. On May 29, quarantine officers in Zambales seized a refrigerator containing hidden meat balls from China. Another incident occurred a few days later when frozen pork products from China were being sold in a store in Manila.

“ASF is something I cannot take for granted,” Piñol said. And no one else should either.