Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — New cases of African swine fever have declined and pork production is returning to normal, Chinese officials said on Thursday, after millions of pigs were culled because of the deadly disease.

The virus — fatal to wild boar and pigs but harmless to humans — has cut a swathe through Mongolia, Vietnam, North Korea and China.

The world’s top pork producer and consumer has seen prices and imports continue to rise since the August outbreak spread across the country.

About 1.16-million pigs have been killed over the past 10 months, according to official Beijing statistics, but the true figure is widely considered to be much higher.

However, China has recorded only 44 new incidences of African swine fever over the past seven months compared with 99 cases from August to December last year, according to Yu Kangzhen, vice-minister of agriculture and rural affairs.

“Pork production is slowly recovering, but there are challenges to containing the virus,” he told reporters at a press briefing.

Live pig prices have increased about 40% since May last year, pushing inflation to a 15-month high. The country’s pork imports surged 63% in May compared with 2018, according to customs data.

Despite government claims that the epidemic is “under control” analysts say the damage is being underreported.

Christine McCracken, senior animal protein analyst at Rabobank, estimates that 200-million pigs could be culled in China — more than half the stock of the country, which supplies about 50% of the world’s pork.

Yu said the government has adopted a “zero tolerance policy” to deal with local officials who fail to inspect or report outbreaks.

The government has tightened biosecurity standards for pig farms to ensure that the virus is contained, he said, as well as increased scrutiny of meat processing and transporting facilities to guarantee contaminated supplies do not end up on shop shelves.

But there are still challenges in controlling the spread of the virus because China's small farmers are ill-equipped to prevent the disease, he said. “Feeding kitchen waste to pigs is banned but its still taking place because pigs were traditionally used as a family's garbage bin,” he said.

Yu declined to comment on a timeline for conducting field trials for a vaccine to prevent swine fever, saying the research is still at an early stage.