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Why You Can’t Believe What China Says About African Swine Fever

A week in China shows Iowa farmers that the country’s agriculture is struggling.

I spent the first week of March touring the People's Republic of China with 20 Iowa farmers. I have been asked not to say who arranged the trip, but it was an extraordinary glimpse into the world's most populous country. I want to share one day, March 4, that seems to capture the China experience and why it is so hard to get accurate information from the communist nation. Be sure to read the response from the official central government at the end.

It started with a visit with U.S. officials (after I published the first version of this story, I was asked not to name the location). There was no mention of the meeting being off the record at the time and everyone took notes.

For this story, I am going to focus on the discussions about African swine fever (ASF).

Keep in mind that at a dinner earlier in the week, a meat export expert in China (again, we were later asked not to identify anyone by name) talked to us about the status of ASF. “African swine fever is very bad. There are reported cases all across the country, but many cases are not reported. They have found the disease in sausage, in processed meat, and in dumplings. Although the government repeatedly tells consumers that it has nothing to do with health of the human, people are still concerned. Pork consumption is going down.”

Here is what we were told by U.S. officials:

  1. African swine fever is uncontrollable. It has spread from China to Vietnam and will likely soon be in Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. The situation in China is much worse than four months ago.
  2. The disease is accelerating the consolidation and modernization of the pig industry in China, which is something the government wants. There is a shift to transporting pork, not pigs.
  3. Millions of Chinese people own pigs and suffer in silence. At least 90% of the pigs are raised by families with small herds. Only the biggest farms have modern biosecurity. Most pigs are fed plate waste in communal paddocks. 
  4. The disease won’t be controlled unless a vaccine is developed.

Twitter, Google, Facebook, and many other sites are banned in China, but I was able to access them using an international plan on my phone. After our meeting I posted one tweet about ASF being out of control in China. It quickly went viral.

ASF slide

Next we visited a U.S.-based feed ingredient company, which I was asked in a later email not to name. There was no mention of the meeting being off the record at the time. All of us took notes during the meeting, as well as photos of the company’s slide deck (one slide with the company's name removed is shown above).

Here is what we learned about ASF from this company:

  1. ASF is a huge problem in China and has created a new normal for the country. “We will never kill ASF, but we are learning how to live with it. We need to find a way to save our pig industry,” said a company spokesperson.
  2. Consumers have a concern about ASF, even though they are told it will not affect humans. Consumers don’t believe that. Pork consumption is down.
  3. Feed mills are producing much less pig feed, so they are trying to find other businesses. Some are transferring their feed to broilers or the pet business.
  4. The government is trying to promote large-scale farms because it is easier for them to manage a few huge players as opposed to managing a lot of small players. There will always be small farmers who buy a couple of pigs here and there, but the middle-size producers will go bankrupt or sell out to a bigger player.
  5. Last fall, the government banned the use of blood plasma in feed because they found out it was the biggest risk of spreading ASF. About 95% of the plasma was positive for the disease. However, the slaughterhouses needed a market for the blood and said throwing it out would be a waste and cause pollution. Recently, the government agreed to allow them to sell it if it tested negative for ASF.
  6. Some of the largest pig farms are buying the small pig farms around them in an effort to keep their pigs safe.
  7. A lot of backyard pig farmers have quit from the industry and the pig inventory has decreased. The larger farms are doing their own breeding and building their own slaughterhouses. Contract feeding is increasing as larger companies provide farmers with piglets, feed, and technical support.

During the visit with the feed company, I tweeted about the effects of ASF on pig production in China.

China meeting

The third visit of the day was to the China Animal Agriculture Association in Beijing (above). There we heard from Gong Guifen, vice secretary-general, and He Xintian, secretary-general and researcher. Their remarks were relayed through a translator. 

Here is what we learned about ASF in the words of the official government spokespeople:

  1. We are now in the transforming process of making Chinese agriculture more modern. Animal agriculture production in China is developing rapidly, but it is not as stable as we expected.
  2. The most challenging difficulty is the ASF that started last year. It has affected China on a very large scale. There are 25 provinces and 105 farms with cases of ASF. China produces about 700 million pigs annually, so to tackle a difficult problem on such a huge base is really challenging.
  3. ASF is being controlled effectively. There are fewer and fewer ASF cases happening. That shows that all the measures against the ASF here in China are very effective. We have a very effective protection program in terms of ASF, so the transportation restrictions have been lifted in most of the areas.
  4. The central government has given out a general outline in coping with ASF. Companies are also carrying out a series of positive actions in terms of ASF. We have a seminar on how to cope with ASF. We also have a very close connection with the American soybean and meat associations and professional experts all around the world on how to deal with this current situation.
  5. There is no cure or vaccine. The government is trying to step up and find an effective cure for the disease. When pigs get the disease, we isolate them and limit contact with other pigs. We have a very serious protection program that we tell the companies to obey. We have a sterilization process for all the vehicles transporting pigs and pork. When vehicles go to the slaughterhouse, they cannot go into the factory directly.
  6. Pork production in China was in overcapacity before we got the disease. By the end of 2018, the pork production here had decreased by 0.9%. It will decrease by the end of this year for sure.
  7. Our consumers for pork won’t be affected very much. There are many substitute foods for pork in the market right now, so the consumers have multiple choices. Secondly, we believe that pork is a red meat and not so good for your health. Our consumers are getting a better and healthier diet, so they may not have so much demand for pork as they had before. Pork consumption in China is not increasing. Consumers have changed their philosophy in choosing their meat. Traditionally, Chinese people have a preference for pork, but now we have so many choices. Poultry is said to be good for your health. ASF has made Chinese consumers afraid of pork, so they may have switched preferences to poultry meats. In fact, we are not very concerned on the effect of ASF because the consumption structure is changing. They were already switching their focus from pork to poultry meat and other meat choices.
  8. In terms of the producers of pigs, even though we have the ASF and production is going down, the price is actually going up, so it is actually kind of a good thing for the producers. 
  9. Thank you to our counterparts in American animal agriculture for supporting us and giving us advice. We have been in touch with meat associations in America that have provided us with technical information and guidance on how to raise animals. The modern technical and professional advice we get from America on how to evolve China’s animal agriculture is valuable.

As we were wrapping up the visit with the Chinese livestock officials, our trip guide got a call from one of the U.S. officials we met with earlier asking that Betsy Freese stop tweeting about the meetings. I stood on a street corner in Beijing and deleted two tweets.

On March 6, the USDA announced additional steps to keep ASF from entering the United States, “even as the disease spreads internationally. These steps strengthen the protections announced last fall after the deadly swine disease reached China. The goal remains to protect our nation’s swine industry from this disease.”

pigs feet and guts

Above: Pig’s feet and intestines in an open market in Chengdu. This scene is repeated everywhere in China.

By the way, the farmers on our trip took extra biosecurity measures before returning to their operations. The shoes they wore in China were left in Hong Kong before boarding the plane. They carried a clean pair in their bags. They laundered their clothes at a relative’s house before returning to the farm. The pig farmers did not enter their barns for five days after returning. 

Chinese pig farmer

I took the photo above (of a photo on the wall) at New Hope, a hog, dairy, and feed company in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on March 6. The man pictured is a contract grower for New Hope. The company produces about 25 million pigs and 20 million tons of feed every year, says senior manager Wu Hauxing. "We support the poor people. When people are not very rich and don’t have sufficient money to start their own business, we give them money to build a farm to raise pigs. We give them the piglets and the feed and they return the money back step by step." 

When asked about African swine fever, Wu Hauxing translated for a vice president of New Hope, Lin Yongyu.

"Yes, African swine flu is now in China and in this province, but so far none of our farms has been infected. The main reason is we are very clean with our feed source. We control the feed and the production. Some progress has been made with controlling the disease during the past few months, because the government and the producers themselves are following strict rules to control it. It is under control now. We have a plan from our producers' side and from the central government side, so if anything happens then both plans will be activated. The plan consist of two parts. First, is prevention. Basically you control the feed and make sure it is from a clean source. Second, if a pig is infected, all the animals would be neutralized."

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