Opinion Piece

The recent African swine fever outbreak could spell a disaster for the South African pork industry if not contained

The recent African swine fever (ASF) outbreak in South Africa is a double-edged sword that impact both producers and consumers.

So far in 2021, a couple of outbreaks have been reported in Petrusburg, Free State, in Emfuleni area of Khayelitsha, Western Cape with a few cases also reported in Gauteng from Randfontein and parts of the Vaal area. Currently, there is no registered vaccine for the virus and the best option is to prevent it from spreading once detected.

The direct and short-term economic impact of the ASF is the producer’s loss of revenue due to infected animals that needs to be killed in order to contain the spread. The indirect and long-term effect is consumer perception which does not only affect sales but could compel producers to start substituting pork consumption with other meat products.

After containing the disease following a rigorous increase in outbreak cases in 2019, South Africa’s pork exports had increased by 4.8% in 2020 mostly destined to the neighbouring countries. About 10 283 tons of pork was exported of which 10% was destined for Mozambique followed by Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana.

An increase of 1 106% in pork exports to Hong Kong was also recorded in 2020. This is great news for the industry given the lucrative market presented by China and East Asia at large, nonetheless, China has since stopped imports from South Africa and other countries in fears surrounding ASF. The rise in pork exports for South Africa can be linked to improving disease management methods from identified affected areas and the increase in production.

In 2020, generally the pork industry has grown as reflected by the increase of 2.3% in slaughter numbers, the rise in exports with imports declining by 40.61% is attributed largely to a decline of 48% from Germany due to an ASF outbreak late in 2020. This, however, combined with feed prices negatively affected domestic pork prices. In January 2021, prices for pork ribs, for example, had increased by 13% month-on-month but decelerated by 0.01% when compared to the same period the previous year.

ASF outbreak threatens the industry’s progress achieved during 2020 and it has the potential to regress it. Globally, research has shown that the disease is more detrimental to emerging farmers which is likely to be the case in South Africa because these farmers lack the expertise and resources to protect their pigs from the disease.

By slaughtering numbers, Gauteng is by margins the biggest, constituting at least 40% of total pigs slaughtered in South Africa during the 2019/20 marketing season, followed by Western Cape (20%) and Kwa-Zulu Natal (14%). A poor management of the disease in these provinces would present a serious threat to the industry at large and subsequently prices for pork and its products.

How does it spread?

The disease’s main carrier is live pigs, pork meat or its products. A report by the food and agricultural organization (FAO) states that, pork meat and pork products from affected pigs/farms should be carried with the most care because the virus survives a longer period whether the meat is raw, frozen, dried, or cooked. It can also be carried by farmworkers through contaminated footwear, clothes worn while at the farm and other general tools normally used at the farm. 

How to prevent the disease from further spreading?

One of the most important things is to have a well-developed pig value chain and integrated biosecurity measures from the national level to the local municipalities for easy risk management, especially in provinces such as Gauteng, Western Cape and Kwa Zulu Natal where pig transportation, slaughtering and processing occurs at large volumes. Strict biosecurity measures across the pig value chain should be maintained at all time by all farmers, large and small scale. Farms and vehicles transporting pigs need to be disinfected as frequently as possible.

The first step after detecting the disease is to not move pigs or their meat between farms, towns, or even municipalities to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, and a vet or a professional should be contacted to dispose of the carcasses affected immediately.

Short-to-medium term implications

Domestically, pork prices are expected to remain relatively the same in anticipation of lower feed prices in the next few coming weeks. Also, the ban in imports mainly from Germany which is a significant supplier for South African pork ribs, so far has had a minimum effect on prices and the decline in pork demand from China is anticipated to positively affect pork export prices.

Thabile Nkunjana is an agricultural economist at the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC).

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