Not quite as tasty: Pork prices dropped in China last week amid fears of eating meat infected with African swine fever. Picture: REUTERS
Not quite as tasty: Pork prices dropped in China last week amid fears of eating meat infected with African swine fever. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — China has ordered the world’s top pork producer, WH Group, to shut a major abattoir as authorities race to stop the spread of deadly African swine fever (ASF) after a second outbreak in the world’s biggest pig herd in two weeks.

The discovery of infected pigs in Zhengzhou city, in central Henan province, about 1,000km from the first case to be reported in China, pushed pig prices lower on Friday and stirred animal health experts’ fears of fresh outbreaks — as well as food safety concerns among the public.

Though often fatal to pigs, with no vaccine available, ASF does not affect humans, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

ASF has been detected in Russia and Eastern Europe as well as Africa, though never before in East Asia, and is one of the most devastating diseases to affect swine herds. It occurs among commercial herds and wild boars, is transmitted by ticks and direct contact between animals and can also travel via contaminated food, animal feed and international travellers.

WH Group said Zhengzhou city authorities had ordered a temporary six-week closure of the abattoir after about 30 pigs died of the highly contagious illness on Thursday.

AREAS OF CONCERN INVOLVE MULTIPLE … PROVINCES AND HEIGHTEN THE LIKELIHOOD OF FURTHER CASES.

The plant is one of 15 controlled by China’s largest pork processor, Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development, a subsidiary of WH Group.

Zhengzhou city authorities have banned all movement of pigs and pork products in and out of the affected area for the same six weeks.

Shuanghui said on Friday it culled 1,362 pigs at the abattoir after the infection was discovered. The infected pigs had travelled 2,300km by road from a market in Jiamusi city in China’s province of Heilongjiang, through areas of high pig density to central Henan.

Another northeastern province, Liaoning, has culled thousands of pigs since a first case of ASF was reported two weeks ago. The pigs’ long journey, and the vast distance between the two cases, stoked concerns about the spread of disease across China’s huge pig herd, as well as potentially into Japan, the Korean Peninsula and other parts of Asia.

"When pigs travel long distance, especially under such high temperatures, they would accumulate much waste on the way. And the driver might have to stop many times to rinse the vehicles and the pigs, which will leave the waste all along the way," said Feng Yonghui, chief researcher at trade website Soozhu.com. "If there is ASF virus in the waste, it is very easy for pigs transported in other trucks passing by to catch it."

The race in recent years to build vast pig farms in China’s northeastern maize belt has increased the number of pigs being transported across country from farm and market to slaughter and processing in the south. That underlines the challenge for the government in trying to contain infection.

"The areas of concern involve multiple Chinese provinces and heighten the likelihood of further cases," the Swine Health Information Center, a US research body, said in a note.

South Korea does not import pork or pigs from China, but the government has stepped up checks at airports on travellers from the country and recommends visitors there avoid farms and live markets, the ministry of agriculture said.

In Japan, authorities have ramped up checks on travellers from the affected regions, its agriculture ministry said. It bans imports of raw China pork.

Pig prices dropped on Friday amid concerns about the outbreak on demand for pork, a staple in China’s diet with retail sales topping $840bn each year. Analysts said farmers may rush to sell pigs fearing the infection may spread to their herds.

Prices were ¥13.97/kg ($2.03) on Friday, down 0.7% from Thursday, according to consultancy China-America Commodity Data Analytics. In central Henan, Hubei and Hunan provinces, prices on average fell more heavily, down 1.4%.

"In the short term, there will be a pig-selling spree," said Alice Xuan, an analyst with Shanghai JC Intelligence.

Authorities in Heilongjiang are also investigating whether the pigs involved were infected in the northeastern province bordering Russia.

Meanwhile, comments on the country’s Twitter-like Weibo highlighted worries about the safety of eating pork.

Posts expressing concern that infected meat may enter the food stream and fears about whether it is safe to eat pork garnered the most attention.

"A little scared. What will happen if you eat [pork]?" said one poster.

Reuters