THE Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) seems to have ventured into the lobbying business, and by doing so risks turning a growing food crisis into an unmanageable calamity.
Earlier this week, the DILG called on — or ordered, as some news reports described it — local government units (LGUs) to lift the bans they have imposed on pork and products containing processed pork from Luzon, where there has been an outbreak of the dreaded African swine fever (ASF). This came on the heels of complaints from the Philippine Association of Meat Processors Inc. (Pampi), which said meat processors could lose as much as P55 billion because of the embargo imposed by 55 provinces in Mindanao and the Visayas.
It is nearly impossible to overstate just how bad the ASF epidemic is. Despite its name, the disease originated in China; the first official report of an outbreak was in Liaoning province in August last year. According to the latest status report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), as of October 10 China had reported 158 ASF outbreaks in 32 provinces, with about 1.17 million hogs culled to try to stop the spread of the disease. It is generally believed, however, that these figures are grossly underreported; between the infection and culling efforts, the agriculture ministry has admitted that China has lost at least 100 million animals — about a third of its hog population — a figure that simply does not square with its official estimate of the extent of the disease.
Elsewhere, just in East and Southeast Asia, outbreaks of ASF have been confirmed in Mongolia, Cambodia, Vietnam, both Koreas, Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor-Leste. The disease has also found its way into Thailand and Russia, and is suspected in Indonesia and Malaysia, although in the latter two countries, large Muslim populations mean that the problem and its implications are not as serious. Vietnam seems to have been particularly hard-hit by the ASF epidemic, with all but one province reporting the presence of the disease.
The ASF virus spreads rapidly among both domestic and wild pigs, either through physical contact with infected animals, tissue or bodily fluids, or contact with objects touched by infected animals or places they’ve been. Transporting pigs in a truck that was previously used to transport infected animals, for instance, is enough to spread the disease.
Pampi has said that manufacturing processes for food products eliminate any trace of the ASF virus, which poses no threat at all to human health — at least so far — but is extremely contagious and absolutely fatal to pigs. According to the industry group, pork accounts for about 40 percent of the meat that is used in processed foods, primarily canned meat products. To be fair, cooking the meat does kill the virus, and Pampi is probably correct to say that processed meat products are safe.
Probably. And therein lies the rub: The ASF disease is so virulent that even one slip — a little bit of corner-cutting, a batch of product that doesn’t get processed exactly to standard — could and almost certainly would spread the epidemic. No matter how much confidence Pampi has in its members, it can only guarantee very long odds against a transfer of the infection to a new area, not absolute safety. And with an epidemic as persistent and destructive as ASF, that is hardly good enough.
It is apparently good enough for Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, however, who issued a directive to local governments to lift their bans on pork products from Luzon. The main concern of the DILG is the disruption to domestic commerce; not only would businesses suffer from the ban, but consumers would face higher food prices. Those are reasonable concerns, but they absolutely cannot be prioritized ahead of guarding against the extreme risk of an even bigger catastrophe, as the hog-raising industry itself pointed out in a powerful statement demanding that Año recall his order.
The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) said: “The hemorrhage to the industry of the African swine fever (ASF) is real, catastrophic and in billions of pesos. And yet, we support the decision of [the] Visayas and Mindanao LGUs to ban the entry of our products to their region to ensure that [the] Visayas and Mindanao remain ASF-free.” The group also politely scoffed at the claim of potential financial hardship by food manufacturing sector.
“The processed meat industry is minuscule compared to the P500-billion hog industry and allied businesses. Pampi’s claim of losses is not equal to the declared value of their industry, as per the Board of Investment record,” it added.
Fortunately, LGUs that could be affected by ASF seem inclined to not allow the DILG to put their own local pork production at risk. Sinag reported that Cebu would not follow Año’s order, and Gov. Arthur Yap of neighboring Bohol was even more defiant, saying he would lift the ban in his province only if the amount and method of compensation for farmers “if and when” ASF arrived there was guaranteed in writing.
The distressing thing in these differences of opinion concerning the degree to which protective measures against ASF need to be applied is that the lack of consistency almost guarantees there will be a breakout of the disease. No one wants businesses or consumers harmed, of course, and that is understandable, but it seems that only the hog-raising sector and local governments are able to consider long-term consequences and err on the side of caution. Those who do not believe this is necessary should look to neighboring countries, where swine are quite literally being rendered extinct, to understand the ramifications of not taking extreme measures to stop ASF.