By Orville Williams
The local meat industry and wider agriculture sector have so far been spared any impact from the dangerous African swine fever (ASF), which is threatening to decimate the domestic pig population in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.
In late July, the Caribbean Agricultural Health and Food Safety Agency (CAHFSA) issued an advisory for Caricom member states to “intensify protective measures against the ASF, which is now confirmed to be in the Americas”.
According to reports, the disease – which had been considered absent from the Caribbean since 1984 (in Haiti) and the Dominican Republic since 1981 – was first detected in the latter country’s Monte Cristi province in early July, before spreading to over 15 provinces as of late August.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that there were nearly 500,000 pigs in the country in 2019, a figure which is likely to have grown since, but the ASF outbreak has so far resulted in the death of more than 70,000 pigs.
The majority of those pigs were not killed directly by the disease, but were slaughtered in an attempt to curb the spread. US experts also warn that many more may have to be slaughtered – up to half a million – to prevent the complete annihilation of the island’s population.
So far, Antigua and Barbuda has managed to avoid any such devastation or threats of it, with a ban on pork and pork products from the Dominican Republic swiftly put in place.
Chief Veterinary Officer, Dr Tubal Edwards, believes the country has avoided the ASF primarily due to the ban having its desired effect.
“No, we haven’t found any trace of the African swine fever, [primarily] because we’re not importing any pork or pork products from the Dominican Republic. That’s the only measure we could have put in place thus far.
“We’re trying our best to keep out all pork and pork products from Santo Domingo, but in the event that something slips through, we have the laboratory on standby to see what we can do in terms of detecting,” he explained.
Agriculture officials have been warning that the ASF can wipe out entire herds of domestic swine, with the highly-contagious virus sturdy enough to remain viable for months in common feed ingredients, including those shipped across oceans.
Dr Edwards was optimistic about avoiding a local outbreak, noting that that would require swift action that could end up costing quite a bit.
“If any trace of [the ASF] is found, whatever meat came through [with the tainted meat] has to get eliminated, completely destroyed, and we then have to start testing the live animals,” he added.
Along with the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Cuba is the only other Caribbean country with a history of ASF and the disease has been absent there since 1980.
In the wider Americas, Brazil also faced an ASF outbreak, but the country has been free of the disease since 1981.