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Belarus denies African Swine Fever outbreak despite reports of missing pigs

Belarus’s last official outbreak of African Swine Fever was in 2014, and since then, officials claim, the country has been virus-free. However, recent developments have suggested that Belarus may be suffering from instances of ASF as it spreads through Europe – instances that the Belarusian government are denying, to the counterpoint of Russian veterinary suspicions and locals.

Despite announcing three outbreaks of ASF in Belarus in 2013/2014, authorities were criticised by Russian officials over a lack of transparency in the efforts against the disease. As with the current alleged outbreak, reports were that undocumented instances of ASF occurred in Belarus in the previous year, but were not officially declared by authorities.

The same accusations also occurred in 2015 in Stolpnya, which is the location of the current suspected outbreak.

In August 2017, another accusation of ASF was brought up at a large pig farm in the Gomel region. Locals claimed that pigs were culled and burned at the farm, and told by veterinary inspectors that pigs were not allowed to be bred for 6 months. The locals suspected ASF, however there was no official report about the incident, and attempts by media to gain any information about what happened have been denied by Belarusian veterinary officials.

On the 10th of April, Russian veterinary authorities imposed temporary restrictions on Belarusian pork due to the presence of ASF detected in imported pork products.

Reportedly, around 500,000 pigs in Belarus have ‘disappeared’ since the start of 2018 (archived article). According to the Agricultural and Food Minister of Belarus, Leonid Zayats, pig farms are being closed due to upgrading and modernisation, but Russian veterinary officials suspect that this is a cover up for outbreaks of African Swine Fever.

Missing livestock that cannot be accounted for could be the result of culling and destruction of the corpses. However, there is a chance that any meat from missing livestock may end up in the supply chain under a different label of speciation, or origin – as with the Horsegate scandal in 2013, where horse meat from a surplus in Romania (due to a ban on live exports of horses and a ban on horse-drawn carts in cities and on main roads) allegedly entered France labelled as beef, and then the UK.

Traceability issues in meat can cause health and economic concerns as well as bad publicity. Horsegate brought the word ‘bute’ to the headlines – shortened from the word phenylbutazone, an equine painkiller. Although the overall risk from the painkiller ended up being low, the mislabelling issue showed the relative ease with which infected or contaminated meat could end up on the plates of the public.

African Swine Fever could have a devastating effect on the pork industry if it spreads further into Europe and across to the UK. The UK exports a large amount of pork to China – a country that will not buy from countries with confirmed outbreaks and risk its own intensive pig industry. Chinese demand for British pork has doubled over the past few years and in August last year, the UK signed a new pork export deal with China, which is expected to generate £200m for the UK’s food industry.

Germany, a country at high risk of the spread of African Swine Fever, also exports a lot of pork to China . As one of the major EU pig producers, Germany is currently taking measures such as the culling of 70% of the wild boar population in an effort to prevent ASF from stretching into its borders.

Although the UK does not contain the same number of wild boar as the rest of Europe, the possibility still exists that some of the 4000 population could come into contact with contaminated pork products and spread ASF to domestic pigs, or that outbreaks could occur on domestic pig farms from contaminated food.

As ASF sweeps through Europe and presses closer to Germany’s borders, it’s clear that concerted efforts of both biosecurity and meat traceability need to come into play. Imported pork products transported around Europe should be verified for origin to ensure supply chain traceability. Pork fraud may also target products that command a premium – such as British or free-range pork – by substituting cheaper imported pork, which can be around a third cheaper for suppliers, with these products. Since China does not import pork from countries with ASF, a surplus of cheap pork in Europe may be imported to the UK and mislabelled as British, therefore increasing the risk of ASF spread and further fraud.

Agroisolab recommends testing pork for verification of origin. See our pork page for more information.

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